Associated with all things good and delicious, our bodies have a natural gravitational pull towards sweetness.
We have biology to thank for that.
Humans, particularly young, growing humans, have an innate preference for sweetness because in the natural world, sweet things are typically calorie dense (and therefore favorable to encouraging growth and providing energy) and less likely to be poisonous. We are hard-wired, especially as children, to like sugar, and although there is some wisdom to this instinct, our sugar cravings often go unchecked. Compared to our ancestors, we live in a world where sugar is far more abundant and far less energy is required to obtain it, and therefore, we’ve begun to run into some problems. Namely, too much sugar.
The term sugar describes a variety of molecular configurations:
Some also use the term sugar to describe ingredients like granulated sugar, honey, maple syrup, high fructose corn syrup, or any other sugar-rich sweetener.
Sugar is present, in some quantity, in most of the foods we eat. In some cases, such as in root vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, sugar is naturally occurring. In other cases, such as in pop, candy, baked goods, processed cereals, condiments, and many other foods, sugar has been added.
As we will discuss, there is a big difference between these two sources.
Sugar, which is a form of carbohydrate, is quite easily broken down through digestion and metabolism and converted into glucose, which is the body’s key source of energy.
While it is possible to convert other macronutrients like protein into glucose in the absence of carbohydrates, this conversion is a bit more metabolically taxing than simply consuming carbohydrates, and most people feel best when their diet includes some sources of naturally occurring sugars.
However, foods with naturally occurring sugars are very different from foods with added sugars.
Avoiding all foods with naturally occurring sugars would be very difficult, and would likely lead to major nutritional deficiencies, because many of those foods also come with essential nutrients. However, minimizing foods with added sugars, which are usually processed and low in nutrients, would probably be one of the healthiest dietary changes one could make (which isn’t to say it wouldn’t be difficult).
While the sugar that comes in the form of whole foods is part of a healthy diet, the sugar that comes in processed foods and drinks devoid of nutrition is just, well, sweet empty calories.
Naturally occurring sugars are found in nearly all plant foods, perhaps most obviously in fruits (because they are sweet). In addition to whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, and some nuts and seeds, sugar is also found in dairy. Sugar also comes in concentrated forms in a variety of foods such as honey, dried fruits, and fruit juices.
As we move along the continuum of food processing, sugar is also available in semi-processed forms such as maple syrup, coconut sugar, agave nectar, and plain old (not white) sugar (often derived from either sugarcane or sugar beets). Even these forms of sugar contain trace amounts of minerals and nutrition.
However, as sugar is processed further into neutral-tasting white granules, powder, or clear syrups, all of the nutrition has been removed. This is typically the form of sugar that is found in most processed, commercial foods and drinks, and is likely the most harmful to health when consumed in substantial amounts (more than about 5-10% of total daily food intake).
Take away: The best sources of sugar come from minimally processed whole foods.
When sugar is consumed in the form of a whole food, we also consume a range of other nutritious compounds that come with it. For example, the sugar that naturally occurs in blueberries also comes with vitamin C, fiber, and many other health-promoting phytochemicals.
In other words, when sugar is “packaged” inside of a whole food, we also get the benefit of all the known (and unknown!) nutritious compounds that are present in the whole food.
So, while sugar in itself isn’t necessary, the foods through which we consume sugar are. If we were to eliminate all foods with naturally occurring sugars (which would mean all fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, and dairy), we would also eliminate many primary sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
In the right amounts, sugar is simply a form of energy. However, if sugar is eaten in excess of what the body requires for energy, it will begin to cause problems in the body.
Most benignly, excess sugar will be converted into stored energy in the body, ready to be used during a workout or a quick run for the bus. If sugar is chronically consumed in excess, it will be stored as fat. If sugar is consistently being consumed in excess and the body has begun to have trouble knowing what to do with it, sugar hangs around in the blood and can cause health problems such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular problems, and other health complications.
When people are told to cut down their sugar, it’s important to look at all sources of sugar in the diet. In most cases, complications stemming from excess sugar are due to the overconsumption of processed foods with added sugars such as sweet breakfast cereals, sugary frozen coffee beverages, pop, cookies, muffins, snack bars, sweetened yogurt, candy, and desserts, among others. However, in very rare cases it may be particular whole foods that are causing the problem.
So when cutting back on sugar beware not of the banana, but do re-think the packaged foods with added sugars that find themselves in your daily diet.
For recipes rich in natural sugars, check out any of the fruit, vegetable, grain, or nut entries.
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Biologically speaking, we are wired to like sugar. Our ancestors favored it because of its association with non-poisonous calorie-dense foods, which were in limited supply and essential to survival. Now that non-poisonous calories are everywhere, we still love sweetness, sometimes exorbitantly. Molecularly speaking, sugars come as simple monosaccharides (like glucose, fructose, or galactose), or as compound disaccharides (lactose, maltose, or sucrose). Sugars occur naturally in many whole foods such as fruits, root vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and others. When sugar comes “packaged” in a whole food, it also comes with all the nutrition present in that whole food. However, sugars are also found in many processed foods that are low in nutrition. It is the overconsumption of foods with added sugars, and not generally foods with naturally occurring sugars that contribute to health problems such as diabetes and obesity. The take-away message: Don’t be afraid of mangos, sweet potatoes, or brown rice, but do look at the ingredients in your processed breakfast cereal / iced coffee / fizzy beverage.