Thursday Thoughts: Sugar

It's Thursday, so you know what that means...

Thursday Thoughts

If you are new to my blog, or just missed the past few Thursdays, this is a segment where I post my thoughts about various nutrition and health related topics, or maybe even something else if it is really an intriguing topic.  Most of my current views and opinions come from experience working as a dietitian and as college instructor in nutrition courses.  Most of that learning is science based or observational from the clinical setting.  In general, I hate overgeneralizations, so for many of the things I post, I expect there is one or two exceptions because broad sweeping generalizations are always bound to miss out on something. 

This week I want to talk about something that often gets a bad rap and that the same time is misunderstood.  The topic is sugar.  Actually, the body needs sugar, but not the sugar that may first come to mind.  Not heaping piles of table sugar, but rather carbohydrates, which when digested are broken down into smaller molecules known as sugar.  Let's take a look at my thoughts about sugar.

1) Sugar is a term used to describe the chemical structure of certain molecules which are smaller forms of carbon chains that occur in foods and are formed when carbohydrates are digested.  Sugar is not just the white crystallized granules we add to food to make it sweeter.  I have often heard people say avoid all simple sugars.  The concern I have with this is that eliminating those simple sugars will also get rid of 2 food groups--milk and fruit.  These groups contain sugar, lactose and fructose respectively, but they also contain vitamins, minerals, and in the case of fruit, fiber too.  Cutting out all simple sugars can actually cause problems and an imbalance in the diet.  I think people often associate the term simple sugar with table sugar and forget that there are other natural sugars out there that are not bad when consumed in moderation.

2) I think the issue is really added sugar, and I am glad some foods now label their products this way.  Don't get me wrong, labels can be misleading and you should always check the ingredients and nutrient facts panel, but if it says no added sugar, it is likely not going to have the sugar we (as health professionals) are concerned with.  I hated labels that said sugar free, and I am glad many are now replaced with no sugar added since this is more accurate.  Sugar free often leads people, especially diabetics, to think they are OK to eat without paying attention to portions and contents because there is no sugar.  In reality, they may still have carbohydrates in them, which at the end of digestion, turn into sugar, which can still raise blood glucose levels.  Then, they may even have sugar alcohols in them, which have a laxative effect in many people and this GI upset is usually not welcomed by it's victim.  No sugar added products may be a good choice, but it is still important to read food labels and compare.  Often when sugar is removed, fat will be added to keep up the flavor, and often calories are the same as a regular product.  Even sugar alcohols have 4 calories per gram just like regular sugar, and calories matter when it comes to weight.  I have found many light/lite products are a happy medium because they may contain some sugar and some fat, but it winds up being a better balance.  Sometimes you are just better off with the regular food product, just less of it.  

3) I think that sugar often gets blamed for things that should not be blamed on sugar.  I personally believe diabetes is a multi-factorial disease, meaning not one thing causes it, but rather it has multiple factors working together to create a situation where the body no longer responds properly to sugar consumed and insulin produced in the body.  I also think instead of blaming something in the diet people should take responsibility for their own health.  In many cases, and I will never say all cases as that is an overgeneralization, but in many cases, there are factors that could prevent the development of diabetes, even if the genetics are there, and people need to recognize these.  People make choices, and while some people are not educated enough to know about these choices or be able to make the right choices, if someone wants to, I think they can, again in most cases.  I think that people always want to place blame rather than taking some of the responsibility, but in this case, I think blaming sugar intake is misplaced.  I think that while sugar can play a role in the development of obesity, I think other things can play a role too and that there are people who do need to take responsibility for their food choices.  As a dietitian, my clients always accepted some responsibility and I knew this because they came to me to ask for help.  Many people are aware now that they are partly responsible for their health and that there are things they can do to educate themselves on diet and how to lose weight and manage their health.

4) Another concern I have is a growing use for natural sweeteners like honey and agave nectar.  Sugar is sugar is sugar is sugar.  I am fairly sure the body does not think to itself, "yes, it is honey today, that is so great, let's treat it differently than that processed stuff we usually get".  Yes, it's a silly example, but in reality, carbs are carbs, sugar is sugar and in the end it will be used as glucose for energy, stored as glycogen if needed, and after that stored as fat.  The body is not going to know the difference.  Plus, calories are calories and they all have the same calories.  Now, there may be a difference if less of an alternate sweetener is needed, meaning you get less calories because you use less.  That would be a good thing.  I find this to be of concern now because I bought a seemingly healthy children's cereal, all organic, and the second ingredient was organic evaporated cane juice syrup, which I think may sound much healthier to a parent that sugar.  In reality, for the same size serving, this cereal had more grams of sugar in it than my Special K.  I certainly did not find that product to be a healthier choice just because it had a "natural" sugar.  Again, I think marketing and labeling play a role in making foods look healthier than they may really be.  I am certainly not going to name any products, but it is up to everyone, especially parents, to look at the labels and not take the front of the box at face value.

5) My last point is about moderation.  When it comes to sugar, I have to say that moderation is still key.  There are plenty of options out there for replacements or substitutions for table sugar in recipes and cooking at home (especially baked goods) is always better than store bought...when possible.  Having a little table sugar from time to time will probably not harm anyone in the ways that sugar is made to appear.  Eating huge amounts, that may cause a problem and most of the problem is related to a poor diet overall that is not balanced and does not exercise moderation.  Fruits and milk can, and should, be part of a healthy diet, but again, too much of anything can still be a bad thing, even if it is something that is known to be good for you.  Moderation with sugar, ALL sugars, is the key to preventing too much in the diet.

QUESTION:  What are your thoughts on sugar?


Biz said...

A long time ago, one of my co-workers bought me sugar free chocolates from Fannie Mae. They were delicious!

They were small, so I ate one - so good! So I ate another - four in all.

I spent the next 4 hours in the bathroom and missed my train going home! Learned my lesson the hard way!

It's funny because people associate diabetes with sugar - when its all about the carbs.

Great post!

Emily said...

Simple sugar is a term that is misleading. Maybe refined sugar is what people mean?

I don't think sugar causes diabetes per you mentioned it is a multifactorial disease. I think those w/ diabetes would be wise to focus on complex carbs and avoid refined and added sugars. I think moderation is the best concept as you said. Consuming too much sugar, no matter what form is not a good idea.

Special K said...

SUGAR DOES cause diabetes! Period...right? I know we talk about "moderation" but really, that term is pretty vague. If you start dissecting how much "sugar" is in a packet of ketchup, it becomes obvious that it is hidden in everything. so many comments on blogs "everything in moderation" doesn't really penetrate. Too much is too much, and too little is too little. We need more guidance on WHAT IS MODERATION. One diet coke a day?
As a dietician...if you calculated your sugar intake tomorrow in teaspoons, what would it be?

MelindaRD said...

Moderation actually will be an individual thing, so for everyone it is different. I use percentages of calories for fat, protein and carbs to determine that balance, but since people have different calorie needs, it is different for everyone so it is hard to say what moderation is...since it's not the same for everyone...unless you like math since the ranges can be calculated based on needs. I would calculate my needs in grams of sugar, not by teaspoons since that is less helpful for a patient or client to visualize, unless I show them test tubes labelled with different foods.

1 slice of cake once a month is certainly moderation over 1 slice of cake everyday, so the key for moderation is balance, which is know is another vague term. Really the food guide pyramid id a good place to start at least serving amounts wise from the food groups, but then choices still need to be made from there. Looking a bread, 2 slices for a sandwich is moderation, and for most people, 4 slices for 2 sandwiches is not moderation...although for some, they need these calories. Yes, it is a tough one to define, but when looking at the big picture of one's diet, it should be easy to see where things are not in moderation. Eating the same thing day after day actually is not moderation (mostly applied to things like "unhealthy, but could apply to healthy foods too).

Andrea@WellnessNotes said...

I like that you point out to look for "added sugar" and that "natural sweeteners" are still sugar. And that it's important to read labels and know all the different names for sugar... I try to monitor my sugar intake and know that I eat things with sugar in them; some of the foods don't scream "sugar" but have quite a bit (I LOVE ketchup and have to really work on eating not too much for example.)

Love your Thursday Thoughts series!

eatingRD said...

Great post, I too like to look at reducing refined and added sugars as well as the entire picture for a particular individual. I first thought about it from an athletes perspective and simple sugars are actually quite perfect during intense physical activity again based on needs and all kind of other factors :)

Gina; The Candid RD said...

I basically tell people this; If you want to lose weight, decrease your added sugar! And you know what? it works. It's America's problem, lets face it, we are consuming too much of the stuff. And yes, as you said, honey , agave, and any other"natural" sugar counts too!!!

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