I get a lot of questions about sugar… Does it really make a difference what kind of sweetener I use – sugar is sugar is sugar, right? How much added sweetener is okay to eat and still be healthy? It seems like there are lots of “natural sweeteners” available, which ones are best? I'll address the first two questions in today's post and the third one in my next post, with the goal of equipping you to feel empowered and confident in the choices you make around what type of sweet treats you indulge in.
Is sugar okay or should I eat a more natural sweetener?
Short answer: It is much more healthful to eat natural, unrefined sweeteners like honey and maple syrup than refined or artificial sugars.
Long answer: The process of refining cane sugar into table sugar is quite long (watch this video for a 2-minute overview), and produces two byproducts: table sugar and molasses. As we'll discuss more in my next post, molasses keeps the vitamins and minerals (especially iron and calcium) and table sugar keeps virtually no nutrients. This is problematic because when we eat table sugar, our bodies require these vitamins - especially B vitamins – to digest the sugar and use it for energy or storage. So when we eat refined sugar that has these nutrients stripped away, the body has to pull those B vitamins away from other functions they may be needed for, like inflammation management or hormone regulation. One problem with refined sugar is that it depletes us of vitamins we need… natural, unrefined sweeteners don’t.
Problem two is that refined, nutrient-poor sugar has a higher impact on our blood glucose levels. Anyone struggling with prediabetes or Type II Diabetes can tell you how important it is to maintain normal blood glucose levels, and refined sugar increases blood glucose levels much more than nutrient-rich sweeteners like honey and maple syrup.
Chronic blood glucose dysregulation can cause headaches, trouble waking up in the morning, trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, feeling shaky or dizzy between meals, and food cravings.
Artificial or lab-made sweeteners can cause even further problems than vitamin depletion and blood sugar dysregulation. High Fructose Corn Syrup is one of the most common lab-made sweeteners, found in soda, candy, and a host of other packaged foods. Manufacturers do not release much information about the process of creating this corn-extract sweetener, but we do know that it is much sweeter than cane sugar and has a higher fructose to glucose ratio – high fructose corn syrup can contribute to damage to the liver and intestinal walls. It also has been found to have contaminants such as mercury. 1
Basically the learning here is that sweeteners that nature provides are NOT the same as refined or man-made sweeteners, so the first rule of thumb in choosing sweet treats is to opt for natural, unrefined sweeteners (more on that in my next post!).
So how much added sweetener is healthy?
This is a natural question for anyone transitioning from a diet high in refined carbs and sugar to a whole food, plant and animal based diet. There are all these severe-sounding statistics about added sweetener that leave us wondering if we need to avoid sweeteners altogether to be really healthy. And some of those statistics are very true, as well as a little bit scary:
- Over 2/3 of Americans struggle with dysfunction in blood sugar regulation organs such as the adrenal glands (and that number is very conservative!). 2
- According to the CDC, in 2014 9.3% of Americans had Type II Diabetes and a staggering 37% of Americans had pre-diabetes.3
- The average American eats 14 x more sugar today than in 1821… see below for a visual representation of the difference. The jar on the left was average daily sugar consumption in 1821, and the jar on the right is average daily sugar consumption today.
This last point is my favorite stat to share with my RESTART Program participants, because in this class we work through a sugar detox together and learn about how to make food choices that feel great and work well for our bodies.
And the reason I like leading this class so much is that it is much easier to answer the “how much is ok” question after taking a 3 week vacation from sugar. Because I absolutely believe in treats in moderation… but if you look at the jar on the right in the above picture – what many would consider moderate because it is the average daily consumption in the US – you must ask: is that really moderate??
Taking a few weeks to reset the palate often leads folks to decide that they want to eat sweet treats, but only a couple times a week. Or they want to limit their intake to a couple tablespoons of sweetener per day, and only natural sweeteners. The answer will be different for everyone because some folks are dealing with blood sugar imbalances, some with digestive distress, some with a high stress work or home life… and all of these factors will impact the body’s ability to tolerate sweeteners.
So unfortunately there isn't one easy answer on how much sweetener is the right amount for YOU, but here's how I recommend deciding the right amount of sweetener for you:
- Make sure you are not addicted first: try going without it for 3 days. If you get withdrawal symptoms (headaches, shakiness, bad mood, indigestion, trouble sleeping), you may be addicted, and I'd strongly encourage a longer detox, like the RESTART program.
- If you are okay off of sugar, make intentional choices about how and when you want to indulge: is it once a week? Only on weekends? Try it! Keep a journal. See how you feel. Adjust and adapt. We need to become more comfortable as a society understanding and evaluating how our food choices affect us. Also making the decision ahead of time almost always ensures picking a higher quality treat.
One thing you can definitively rely on: when it comes to sweeteners, it is far easier for our bodies to process honey or maple syrup than table sugar or high fructose corn syrup. More on that next time...