5 Crucial Facts About Sugar That You Should Know

Alyssa Atkinson

#4 — Processed sugar affects the brain.


Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Our food system has evolved immensely over the past few decades. Today, when you walk into a grocery store, you have thousands of options to choose from.

It seems like every time I go grocery shopping, there are a bunch of shiny new products just waiting to be discovered. In the ice cream aisle alone, you’ll find a plethora of flavors, dairy-free options, low-fat and low-sugar varieties, etc.

Until my freshman year of college, when I took my first nutrition course and started doing my own research on the topics of food and health, I didn’t fully understand just how prominent processed sugar is in today’s food system. In fact, it was then that I realized my own diet needed a lot of work.

Sure, I was thin and fit, exercised regularly, and I could run a mile in 5 minutes and change, but most of my meals consisted of processed sugar in disguise. I often ate cereal for breakfast, but even the blander options that I thought were healthy had 10+ grams of added sugar in them.

The more I researched sugar, the more I began to understand how it would affect my health long term. So, I slowly but surely removed a lot of the processed sugar from my diet.

There is a lot of misinformation out there about health and fitness in general, and one key component that isn’t often discussed in enough detail is sugar. The following are five facts about sugar that you should know. This information just might help you tweak your own diet for optimal health, happiness, and longevity.

1. Not all sugar is created equal.

When I first went to college, I didn’t realize that there was a difference between processed sugar and fruit sugar. After all, sugar is sugar, right? Wrong.

There are a few key differences that makes fruit sugar healthier than its processed counterpart. First, it contains fiber, which promotes fullness and satiety. Second, its cellular structure is different, and your body is forced to break down the cells before the sugar is released. According to Harvard:

“The sugar is absorbed into the blood more slowly. Eating fruit raises your blood sugar levels, but in a slow and controlled manner, promoting fullness and preventing overconsumption.”

Thus, fruit sugar is much healthier for you, and it doesn’t count towards the daily recommended intake of added sugar. Plus, fruit is packed with vitamins and minerals that will nourish your body. It’s completely healthy to snack on a banana with peanut butter or add some blueberries to your oatmeal.

2. Refined and unrefined sugar are not the same.

While there has long been debate about whether unrefined sugar is better for your health, the fact remains that there is a distinction between refined and unrefined sugar.

Unrefined sugar comes in forms like agave nectar, molasses, and pure maple syrup. These unrefined sources contain micronutrients or other bioactive compounds. However, in terms of metabolic health, there is very little benefit.

Therefore, while unrefined sugar does provide your body with trace amounts of micronutrients, it is still sugar, so you do have to be aware of how much you consume on a daily basis.

3. It isn’t inherently bad.

Sugar has a reputation of being inherently bad. This is largely due to the fact that most of the sugar mass produced and seen on grocery store shelves is the unhealthy, processed kind.

Just about every packaged product you pick up, whether it be a jar of peanut butter, a 12-pack of soda, a box of cereal, or pre-packaged packets of oatmeal, has added sugar.

Still, sugar is not inherently bad. If you eat mostly natural, plant-based sources of sugar, like fresh fruit, then you’ll avoid the processed sugar, and fuel your body with healthy sources of fuel that provide you with ample nutrients.

4. Processed sugar affects the brain.

Have you ever wondered why you might struggle to restrain from eating an entire sleeve of pre-packaged cookies? Well, it has a lot to do with the way processed sugar affects the brain.

In fact, Cassie Bjork, RD, LD, states:

“Every time we eat sweets, we are reinforcing those neuropathways, causing the brain to become increasingly hardwired to crave sugar, building up a tolerance like any other drug.”

You wouldn’t sit there and eat three bowls of broccoli, but you could probably polish off a pint of ice cream. I have found that by simply minimizing the amount of added sugar in my diet, I can enjoy one or two of my healthy, homemade treats, or even an indulgent dessert, and feel satisfied.

The key is to decrease the overall added sugar in your diet so that you don’t feel like you constantly need it. I used to crave sugar, but now that I only eat 10–15 grams of added sugar per day (at most), I no longer have that high tolerance.

5. The daily limit is less than you think.

The American Heart Association’s daily recommended maximum for added sugar intake is about 6 teaspoons for women, and 9 teaspoons for men.

This equates to about 24 grams of sugar for women, and 36 grams for men.

Trust me, this is way less than you think. If you eat a blueberry bagel for breakfast with a generous scoop of peanut butter slathered on each side, you’ve just consumed about 15 grams of added sugar. If you drink a single can of soda at any point in the day, you’ve just downed 39 grams of sugar.

The best way to stay within the daily recommended limit is to eat mostly minimally processed, plant-based ingredients. I know that this may not be feasible for some, but if you have the means and access to fresh, natural food, it’s well worth it to make your health a priority.

Final Thoughts

Sugar has been labeled as an unhealthy ingredient for years. Unfortunately, this holds true for most of the pre-packaged foods you will find at any mainstream grocery store. However, fresh ingredients that contain natural sugar are a completely different story.

Once I started cooking most of my meals at home, I realized that I no longer even came close to reaching the daily recommended maximum for added sugar intake. I still enjoy vegan brownies, cookies, and other desserts, but I make them fresh at home with minimal added sugar.

If you rely too heavily on packaged convenience foods, it will be nearly impossible to stay within the recommended limit. Focus on eating a balanced diet with mostly natural, minimally processed ingredients. That way, you’ll decrease your added sugar intake, and ultimately boost your health.

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Ohio U XC/Track alum. I love to run. I blog about food, health, fitness, lifestyle, etc. Personal Blog - nomeatfastfeet.com | Electrical and Computer Engineering Grad.

Raleigh, NC

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