Is all sugar bad for you? Not according to Dr. William Li, a physician and scientist who has spent years performing research on human health conditions and diseases, including diabetes and heart disease. In the following article, Dr. Li shares his insights on sugar, such as the difference between natural sugars and added sugars, and why we shouldn’t group the two together. Read more to find out learn about sugar and why you don’t need to stop eating fruit!
Is Sugar Inherently Bad For You? Natural Sugars Versus Added Sugars
Is sugar bad for you? Well, that really depends on where the sugar is coming from! There was a time when we humans only consumed sugar through consumption of fruits and vegetables, and only when those fruits and vegetables were in season. Now, sugar hits come all year round and is in a lot more than our fresh produce. Sugar is practically everywhere – it’s in dressing on salads, soda, cereal, pasta sauce, and even a seemingly innocent slice of bread.
In fact, research suggests that ‘added sugar’ is now the main source of sugar in our diets. It also suggests that, on average, Americans consume more than 22 teaspoons of added sugars per day. This is significantly more than what is recommended by The World Health Organization (WHO). WHO recommends that, for optimum health, our daily intake of added sugars should be kept to around 5% of our daily calorie intake which, for the average person, is just 6 teaspoons, not 22 teaspoons.
Many of us might not realize that we are even eating so much sugar since it is added into a lot of unexpected foods. To give you an idea of what that equates to, these foods and beverages contain the following amount of added sugar:
- 1 can of Coca-Cola: 39 grams (almost 10 teaspoons)
- 1 jelly donut: 6 grams (1.5 teaspoons)
- 1 bowl of Cocoa Krispies: 12 grams (3 teaspoons)
- 1 tbsp ketchup: 3.7 grams (1 teaspoon)
- ½ cup Marinara sauce: 10 grams (2.5 teaspoons)
As you can see, sugar can easily and quickly add up!
Understanding The Many Forms of Sugar
Sugar comes to us in a variety of forms. And it’s not all bad for you. There are those found naturally in the foods we eat, such as fructose, lactose, sucrose, and glucose, and then there are others, like high fructose corn syrup, which are man-made. ‘Added sugar’ includes table sugar, sweeteners, syrups, fruit juices, and sugar that is extracted, refined, and added to food and drink merely to improve the taste. These added sugars can have a negative impact on our health in a variety of ways. One major problem with added sugar is that it is often not bound up with other crucial nutrients, such as fiber.
Sugary drinks, which usually use high fructose corn syrup, have been central to research examining the effects of sugar on our health, and they have been linked to obesity and reduced insulin sensitivity. Indeed, added sugars are thought to increase the risk of developing health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease.
Too Many Added Sugars Can Lower Our Defenses
Man-made and added sugars are instantly absorbed by the digestive system. This is a problem because this can cause our blood sugar levels to spike. A number of scientific studies have determined that high blood sugar levels can incapacitate our regenerative defense system. This is because food and beverages that raise blood sugar block the production of stem cells, the special human cells that can develop into different types of cells, like muscle cells or brain cells. Blocking stem cell production can lower your body’s ability to repair organs. Additionally, elevated blood sugar levels have been shown to cripple and kill important stem cells across the board, from endothelial progenitor cells to bone progenitor cells to cardiac stem cells.
Therefore, to keep your stem cells strong, I recommend that you take a low-glycemic (GI) approach by minimizing or altogether-avoiding sweetened and processed foods that contain little or no fiber. These foods, which include those sugary soft drinks and pre-packaged foods I listed earlier, can cause our blood sugar to spike and contribute to a range of life-threatening health problems.
Natural Sugars Can Have Positive Health Benefits
There is no question that multiple, important links exist between man-made sugars and poor health. The current emphasis on added sugars, however, has created an environment that is “sugar centric” and risks exaggerating the effects of the sugar-component of foods while ignoring other important nutritional components where health benefits do indeed exist.
We also risk confusing foods and drinks with added sugar that lack other essential nutrients, like sugar-sweetened beverages, with healthy foods that have sugars, like fruit and manuka honey. You cannot group all sugary foods together.
In my book, “Eat to Beat Disease,” I list hundreds of foods that are high in naturally occurring sugars and that also do a wonderful job of strengthening our defense systems and healing our bodies.
So remember not all sugar is bad for you-please – don’t stop enjoying fruit!
Sugar Intake for Diabetics
People with diabetes know that controlling their blood sugar level is very important. But despite what you might have been told, complex carbohydrates – which include whole grains, vegetables, nuts and beans – are actually not the enemy. They’re made up of sugar molecules which are broken down by digestion into glucose and used by each and every cell in the body to generate energy and fuel the brain. Because of their high-fiber content, complex carbohydrates allow sugars to be slowly released into the bloodstream – the keyword here is slowly. This helps with digestion and blood sugar control, and will also mean you’ll feel fuller for longer: a plus if your goal is to eat less!
Indeed, a 2017 study found that a predominantly plant-based diet with about 40 grams of fiber per day, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-GI foods such as beans, oats and sweet potatoes, improved insulin resistance and controlled blood sugar three times more effectively than a traditional diabetes diet that calls for strict limitations in the consumption of sugar, calories and carbohydrates.
If you’re a diabetic or someone who’s been trying to lose weight, you’ve probably also been told to avoid fruits that are high in sugar, like cherries and mangoes. But with that sugar comes fiber, vitamins, minerals, healthy bioactive molecules and disease-fighting compounds.
If we look at the science, sugar and carbohydrates from natural sources like fruits, vegetables and whole grains are consistently associated with positive health outcomes, and should not be avoided out of fear over too much sugar, or carbohydrate, in the diet. They are also key components of a healthy and balanced diet. This is why I mentioned earlier that you should not simply demonize sugar at face-value.
Added or ‘free’ sugars, on the other hand, are not necessary for a balanced diet and need to be consumed in moderation. Free sugars are also found in fruit juices, as they do not tend to contain the fiber found in whole fruit.
Final Recommendations on Sugar in Your Diet
I do not recommend excessive consumption of added sugars because of the well-established risk factors for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Added sugars can be quite harmful, but I want to flag that it isn’t the biggest enemy. I agree with the assertion in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010) that overconsumption of calories (not sugars) represents the single greatest health threat to individuals in the United States – and elsewhere – in part due to overall consumption patterns in what has been called the Western diet.
As previously mentioned, I recommend taking a low-GI approach by minimizing or avoiding all sweetened and processed foods that contain little or no fiber, and consuming a mostly plant-based diet rich in fiber, fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-GI foods. And when it comes to diabetes, there is no single meal plan or eating pattern that works for everyone, and sugar intake should be individualized for each patient based on his or her health goals, culture, and health literacy. If you have diabetes, I recommend you consult with a registered dietitian to help develop an individualized meal plan that works best for you.
In general, though, everyone ought to try to avoid artificial sweeteners – these may have negative consequences for our gut bacteria, weaken our blood sugar metabolism, and even promote weight gain. Instead, if you’re looking for a good alternative to sugar, stevia can be useful for sugar-free baking. Stevia is a natural sweetener derived from a plant, it’s virtually calorie-free, and does not affect blood sugar levels and does not cause tooth decay.
In the meantime, consult my book Eat To Beat Disease for my recommendations on foods you can eat that can help keep you healthy and beat disease!
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