Google “too much sugar” and you get 132 million results. That’s because the war on sugar is in full force and effect, and more people than ever before are focused on their sugar intake.
We’ve seen athletes like Maya Moore step up their game after cutting back on sugar (check it out in the video player above). Everyone knows the usual high sugar suspects: soda, cookies, candy, ice cream, etc. But those aren’t the only foods and drinks that contain substantial amounts of sugar. There’s a sneaky amount in many fruits, vegetables and raw nuts. Are these sugars the same as the ones in more notorious sweets? Does the body process the sugar in a banana the same way that it processes the sugar in, say, a candy bar? STACK talked to Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, CSCS, sports dietitian and nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition, to seek answers to these questions and to determine whether all sugar is created equal.
Sugar and the Brain
One of the biggest reasons people eat so much sugar is because our brains like it. When you ingest sugar, your brain releases dopamine—which gives you a feeling of pleasure. A good deal of research has shown sugar to be highly addictive. Like when you get addicted to cigarettes, the pleasure derived from sugar consumption can quickly become a feeling you not only want, but need. Although “having a sweet tooth” sounds innocent enough, the overconsumption of sugar can lead to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia and hypertension. It sounds like you should avoid sugar at all costs, right? Not quite.
Sugar and Fiber
One of the biggest reasons why natural foods like fruits, veggies and nuts should not be casualties of your sugar-cutting measures is their fiber content. Fiber, particularly soluble fiber, is excellent at slowing down the body’s absorption of sugars. The fiber found in many raw foods, such as apples, is especially effective at this. The sugar in the food is combined with these fiber cells, which means it takes more time for our digestive tracts to break down those cells.
“Fiber slows down digestion, resulting in the sugar being absorbed more slowly,” St. Pierre says. Delayed digestion has numerous benefits. It gives the liver more time to metabolize the sugar, which keeps your blood sugar relatively stable. This helps to avoid the rapid rise—and sudden crash—that are associated with a sugar high. “You don’t get that quick rise and fall of blood sugar levels,” St. Pierre says. Those surges in blood sugar force your pancreas to work harder—which can lead to an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes.
The fact that fruits, nuts and vegetables take longer to digest than processed foods such as candy bars and cookies also means that they can keep you fuller longer. Processed foods are exactly the opposite; they are digested quickly and “designed to overwhelm your normal satiation signals, so they can and often do lead to over-eating,” St. Pierre says.
Sugar and Vitamins & Minerals
Another thing to consider is what else you’re taking in with the sugar present in many fruits, vegetables and nuts. Sure, you’ve got fiber—but you’ve also got vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants and possibly protein. Compare that to the processed foods that contain high sugar, which usually contain copious amounts of calories and fat and virtually no vitamins and minerals, and you realize that comparing candy to fruits is like comparing apples to oranges (pun intended).
Refined sugar refers to sugar that does not naturally occur in foods. Refined sugar is table sugar and is often added to baked goods and sweets. If you’re looking to scrub some sugar from your diet, that’s what you should cut back on. Concerning milk and plain yogurt, many varieties contain some natural sugar, but it’s not worth worrying about unless you’re lactose-intolerant. Dairy products that contain natural sugar have even been linked to a reduced risk of diabetes.
Just because a food contains sugar doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy. The body doesn’t treat all sugar the same, and sugar from sources like fruits and veggies have a much different effect on the body than the sugar in a candy bar. If you’re looking to cut down on your sugar, dropping your daily banana is a bad idea. Instead, cut back on refined sugars, which can be found in unnatural sources.
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