For those of us with a sweet tooth (*raises hand*), discussions about why sugar is unhealthy are often a bitter pill to swallow. But prioritizing our health should be a key goal in 2018 and every year, and fortunately, there's evidence that certain types of sugars are healthier than others — so we don't have to swear off sweet treats entirely. (Phew!)
Dr. Ian Tong, MD, chief medical officer at Doctor On Demand, told POPSUGAR that "not all sugars are created equal." Tong explained that doctors typically discuss sugars as carbohydrates, which are classified as either "simple" or "complex." An example of a "simple" carbohydrate is the refined sugar many people add to their daily cup of tea or coffee, and "complex" carbohydrates include foods made from whole grains like potatoes, pasta, and breads.
"When sugar enters your bloodstream, the body attempts to absorb it by secreting hormones like insulin. Simple carbohydrates are more likely to be absorbed quickly and cause a spike in your blood sugar and then insulin level," Tong said.
Krista Ryan, clinical dietitian and director of Food & Clinical Nutrition Services at The Colony ER Hospital, told POPSUGAR that consuming too much sugar often comes at the cost of cutting back on healthier foods and food groups. "Eating too much sugar can make it difficult to eat other essential, healthy nutrients and stay in your daily caloric requirements," Ryan explained. "If it is replacing healthier foods, it can lead to deficiencies in other essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that the diet is lacking."
"Sugar is an energy source for the body," she continued. "Once absorbed, it is either processed for energy in the state of need, or it is stored and converted into fat when the body has more energy intake than expenditure." According to Ryan, our bodies are programmed to prefer the sweet taste of sugar, which triggers hormonal changes in our brain that can lead to an increased craving for sweets.
Like many other "guilty pleasure" food groups, it's fine to consume sugar in moderation. But what exactly is considered a "healthy" amount of sugar? Tong told POPSUGAR that it varies depending on the type of sugar we consume and our daily activity levels but said that a number of studies have found that individuals who eat more than 95 grams (2,000 calories) suffer from a high glycemic load and therefore have an increased risk of developing type II diabetes. "One way to counter a sugar-rich meal is to exercise very soon after eating the meal," Tong suggested. "Taking a walk or going for a light workout can help your body burn off that excess sugar faster than your cells can process it."
Citing the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Ryan said that added sugars should account for less than 10 percent of your daily caloric intake. Because the average adult consumes around 2,000 calories per day, a maximum of 200 calories should come from added sugar (this translates to about four tablespoons). "Be careful as children require fewer calories per day, about 1,200 to 1,400 calories, which means their sugar intake should be less than an adult," Ryan added.
To satisfy your sweet tooth, Tong recommended being selective about the type of sugar you consume. His advice is to stay away from "typical table sugar" because it's usually loaded with sucrose. "You may use artificial sweeteners as they can reduce the glycemic load on the body," he told POPSUGAR. "However, I prefer to educate my patients to swap the refined sugar for another food that is sweet. For instance, instead of adding sugar to your cereal, I would suggest using fruit to sweeten the meal. If you drink tea, then honey is better than white sugar."
Ryan said that fruits are an excellent substitute for sugar because they contain natural sugars along with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. As long as we're mindful of our sugar intake and the type of sugar we're consuming, there's no need to swear off sugar for good — after all, restricting an entire food group often leads to binge-eating in the long term.