Navigating the Sugary Seas of Simple Sugars
The sugary seas can certainly lift you on surges of energy or drop you just as quickly; and though the oh so sweet songs of Sirens are alluring, they could also be your destruction. Before you start sailing the seven seas of simple sugars, let us show you how to steer toward moderation and clear of crashes. By the end of it all, you’ll be worthy of being called Captain of S.S. Saccharide and in control of your ship.
What are simple sugars?
It’s important to know what’s what before navigating the tricky seascape. Simple sugars are simple carbohydrates consisting of one sugar molecule (monosaccharides), such as glucose, fructose, and galactose. Simple sugars may also be two sugar molecules attached together (disaccharides), examples include: lactose, sucrose, and maltose.
As their name suggests, simple sugars are NOT complex carbohydrates, which have three or more sugar molecules attached together. Complex carbohydrates also referred to as starches are in: whole grains, starchy vegetables (potato, sweet potato, corn), beans, and legumes.
Why does the body need simple sugars and carbohydrates?
Go ahead, grant them permission to come aboard. You need them for energy and to fuel body functions, especially the brain and nervous system. Sugars have a structural function in the formation of human DNA and carbohydrates link with proteins to form glycoproteins which work in many important body systems such as:
- Immune system
- Platelet function
- Egg-sperm interaction
- Connective tissue health (tendons, ligaments, etc.)
- Thyroid function
When are simple sugars harmful?
Beware the first mate, sugar tooth! He’s got a secret mission to overtake the ship and steer it toward doom and disaster and that’s no fun. Simple sugars are safe when taken in moderation. However, a diet driven by first mate sugar tooth can lead to problems with obesity, insulin resistance, and it can worsen (not cause) diabetes.
Simple sugars are broken down into glucose in the small intestine and absorbed through the intestinal walls into the blood stream. With the help of insulin, glucose then enters the body’s cells where the sugar can be used for energy. The unused glucose by the body becomes glycogen in the liver. This glycogen can be broken down again into glucose when the body needs energy but does not have an immediately available food/glucose supply. If sugar tooth gets his way and consumes all the sweets he desires, the liver cannot store all the sugar, and converts into fats such as triglycerides. Thus, this process can lead to excess body fat. If a person gets most of their calories from simple sugars, they can develop malnutrition since many sources of simple sugars have no vitamins, minerals, or proteins.
The mainstream American diet is chock full of hidden sugars in items like baked goods, diet foods, pasta sauce, and beverages. Read nutrition labels to help you stick to these recommended limits of sugar:
- Men: 150 calories or 9 teaspoons/day
- Women: 100 calories or 6 teaspoons/day
- Pre-teens/Teens: 5-8 teaspoons/day
- Children 4-8: 3-4 teaspoons/day
- Preschoolers: 4 teaspoons/day
What simple rules can you follow to guide your thinking about the sugars you consume?
Stay the course of health by limiting intake to above recommended amounts and by following these guidelines:
- Satisfy sweet cravings by eating fresh fruits, which are healthy sources of sugar
- Limit or avoid foods high in sugar content (candy, pastries, sugary drinks)
- Cut in half the amount of sugar you add to food or coffee
- Read nutrition labels for hidden sugars found frequently in items such as ketchup, breakfast cereal, granola/cereal bars, yogurt, and spaghetti sauce
What are the alternatives to simple sugars and how do they compare?
If you feel like your sugar game is stagnant, there are alternatives – these artificial sweeteners approved by FDA
- Acesulfame potassium (Sunett)
- Aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- D-Tagatose (Sugaree)
- Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low)
Like everything, you’ll want to use them in moderation. These artificial sweeteners can be especially helpful for diabetics who must avoid sugary foods. There is some debate about whether or not these sweeteners actually make you gain weight, perhaps by stimulating the appetite because artificial sweeteners have virtually no caloric value. Also, there is no significant evidence that artificial sweeteners cause cancer.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a liquid sweetener. Commonly used by the food industry as an alternative to white sugar (sucrose).HFCS is metabolized just like any other simple sugar, and there’s no evidence that HFCS contributes to more obesity when compared to other sources of simple sugars. HFCS has around 53 calories per tablespoon vs. 40 calories in a tablespoon of white sugar.
Agave is a syrup or sugar that comes from the agave plant indigenous to Mexico and the southwestern United States. It has 60 calories per tablespoon vs. 40 found in a tablespoon of white sugar. Like HFCS, agave has no distinct advantage or disadvantage in terms of health.
Honey is found naturally from the production of honey bees who uses flower nectar as their source. The great thing about honey is that it’s rich in antioxidants, unlike white sugar or HFCS. However, the glucose that comes from honey raises blood sugar just like any other sweetener. Diabetics should take the same precautions when using honey in their diet. Honey contains 21 calories a teaspoon, compared with 16 calories for refined white sugar.
Well Captain, there you have it. The knowledge and tools you need to sail the sugary seas. You’re smart. You’re ready. If you see an iceberg, steer clear. Bon voyage!