It’s no secret that Americans consume way too much sugar. With the obesity epidemic at an all-time high, a lot of people are pointing to sugar as the main culprit. But is all sugar to blame? Contrary to what you might think, not all types of sugar make it onto the naughty list.
What’s the real deal on sugar?
Sugar gets a bad rap, regardless of what kind of sugar is in question. What we forget, Dr. Nancy P. Rahnama, a bariatric physician and physician nutrition specialist, tells SheKnows, is that all sugar is not "bad."
“Carbohydrates are different combinations of sugar, and all carbohydrates result in insulin secretion, which is the main component of weight gain, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes,” Rahnama explains.
Glucose (which makes up sucrose, or table sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup) causes an immediate surge of insulin, while fructose (naturally occurring sugar) causes a more delayed release of insulin, she says.
This delayed insulin response happens because natural sugar is packaged with fiber, water, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that slow the release of that sugar in the bloodstream.
Therefore, when looking at the total carbohydrate content of food, Rahnama says to pay attention to soluble fiber since it will lessen the insulin effect by delaying the absorption of sugar.
"Good" sugar vs. "bad" sugar
Now that you know that natural, or “good,” sugars are in and added, or “bad,” sugars are out, the question is: What is considered a good (naturally occurring) and bad (added) sugar?
Registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, Deborah Malkoff-Cohen tells SheKnows that naturally occurring sugars are those sugars already found naturally in food(s) like milk (lactose) and fruit (fructose).
But added sugars — the ones we need to eat sparingly — can be found in table sugar, honey or high-fructose corn syrup. They are called “added” because they are added during processing, cooking or prepping the food.
“Both will spike your blood sugar, but added sugar typically spikes it more,” Malkoff-Cohen explains. For example, eating an apple is not as detrimental to your health as drinking a can of soda. That’s because the sugar in the apple is coupled with fiber to help slow the sugar spike.
However, Malkoff-Cohen says the direct hit from the soda that only takes seconds to drink and has zero fiber or any redeeming nutritional qualities, will completely blow your blood sugar out of the park.
Some foods, like flavored yogurt and chocolate milk, have both natural and added sugar, she notes. They have lactose naturally found in plain yogurt or milk and added sugar from the flavors added.
Sources of good sugar
When choosing the best sugars to include in your diet, make sure you focus on the natural sugars — fructose and lactose — and ditch the foods that contain sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup.
Malkoff-Cohen suggests opting for these foods that contain natural sugars:
- Dairy products like milk and unsweetened Greek yogurt contain lactose, which is made of glucose and galactose. But dairy products are also packed full of protein and a variety of vitamins and minerals that can help your body take more time to process the sugar.
- Fruit contains fructose, but the fiber it’s packed with slows down the absorption of the sugar. Fruit also contains vitamins and minerals that make fruit another healthy choice to include in your diet.
- Certain vegetables and root vegetables — such as carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, potatoes, yams and parsnips — also contain natural sugars. But like fruit, they have a greater nutritional value than foods with added sugar.
Separating the more natural or good sugars from the processed foods that are packed full of added sugar (namely high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose) can help you feel better and improve your overall health.