Recently I was at the grocery store when I saw a bag of a sweetened coconut snack with a large advertisement stating it contained less sugar and as much fiber as an apple. This made it so apparent that as the effects of excess sugar consumption become more widely known, there continues to be confusion about the differences between sugars that naturally occur in foods and sugars that are added to foods.
Though on the surface they seem the same, there are significant differences in how these sugars impact our health. Unlike natural sugars, added sugars are known to contribute to diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Current dietary guidelines recommend limiting added sugars to no more than 10% of daily calories. So, what is the difference between the two?
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that foods that naturally contain sugar, like fruit, also contain a host of other beneficial nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. When we consume a piece of fruit we are eating so much more than sugar. For example, soluble fiber in fruit slows digestion, which has several benefits; it helps contribute to feeling satisfied, and it allows the sugar to be absorbed more slowly, which prevents drastic swings in blood sugar and gives the body time to gradually absorb the sugar and use it as energy, rather than store it as fat.
In contrast, when sugar is added to a food, there is little, if any, nutritive value overall; we are consuming empty calories. Even when sugar is added to a food that is otherwise considered “healthy”, it isn’t absorbed in the same way as natural sugar. Added sugars in foods cause a spike in blood sugar and a release of insulin in the body, increasing the risk for diabetes, and contributing to risk factors for heart disease, such as high triglycerides and cholesterol. Additionally, the spike in insulin stimulates the body to store excess calories as fat, contributing to the weight gain that often accompanies diets high in added sugars.
If you’re trying to reduce your sugar consumption for better health, fruit and other foods that contain natural sugar can be a healthy part of your diet. Studies show that people who consume fruit regularly tend to have lower body weight than those who do not. Instead, opt for limiting processed foods that are high in added sugars.
A diet that limits added sugars can be delicious! Stay tuned for future blog posts for easy ideas to reduce your added sugar intake.
Laura Jeske will graduate with her degree in nutrition from The University of Alabama in December 2017. She loves finding delicious ways to incorporate healthy food into her diet, and is excited to begin her career as a dietitian so she can share her passion with others.