January 25, 2018

One of the biggest frustrations our Health Coaches have is helping people understand the difference between naturally-occurring sugar and added sugar. Packages and recipes with claims like “no added sugar” and “sugar-free” can be very misleading for the unwary.

Our bodies don’t moralise or judge where sugar comes from or whether it should be in the food at all. All our body knows is how to digest food. As soon as food is eaten, the digestive process begins. Sugar is sugar, whether it’s called table sugar, honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, dates, fructose, or any one of the many other names. The body breaks it all down to simple sugars: glucose, fructose, and galactose. It also breaks down starches, cereals, bread, rice, potatoes and fruits into simple sugars.

Sugar in itself is not evil, or necessarily even bad for our bodies. The problem comes when people eat too much of the stuff for their body’s unique tolerance, or when foods that contain sugar (in natural or processed foods) form a large proportion of a person’s diet.

Blood glucose and hormonal response

A meal or snack that contains a high amount of sugar compared to protein and fat causes a spike in blood glucose and the release of the fat-storage hormone, insulin. This is why a high-sugar diet causes weight gain, and can lead to insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, and Type 2 Diabetes.

To add a complication, all carbohydrates are broken down by the body into the same simple sugars, provoking an insulin response that varies between people. The body has to work a little harder with some carbs compared to others, but unless they’re used for energy they all end up in the same place: stored in the liver, the muscles, and the fat cells.

Think about a diet high in carbohydrates: it’s filling (for an hour or so), but when the carbs are broken down to sugars, insulin causes blood glucose to drop and hunger kicks in again, so the person needs to eat more. Insulin also blocks the release of fat for energy.

Those who are active can get away with a little more carb and sugar in their diet than if they weren’t active. But a high-carb diet, for most people, creates more sugar than the person has the time to use for energy, and so storage occurs. This leads to weight gain, and can be the cause of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.

The lesson

Be aware of packaging claims, and ensure that carbs and sugars remain low in each meal or snack relative to the amount of protein and fat that is consumed. Despite the temptation, foods and recipes promoted with “sugar-free” won’t give the results you want.