Ask Keri: I’m trying to cut back on sugar. But is natural sugar healthier than added sugar?
Keri Says: It’s the million dollar (or calorie!) question. Over the past few years, we’ve learned more about how too much sugar can promote obesity and other related health issues such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Research is now showing that sugar is worse for your heart than salt. Sugar dependency, binges, and withdrawal can lead to changes in blood sugar that can disrupt sleep, fuel overeating, and leave you tired (I know, you’re already exhausted by that list!).
The bottom line is that all of those issues are caused by added sugar in the American diet, not the sugars that occur naturally in some healthy, whole foods. In fact, the FDA even got on board with this point with the revised nutrition facts label, which differentiates between natural and added sugars.
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Yes, naturally-occurring sugar is still sugar and there are some ways to overdo it, but I promise you, bananas are not fueling the obesity epidemic. Here’s why.
Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar
First, the basics.
Added sugars are essentially any sugars added during the processing of foods, including refined white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and slightly better sugars. These are often described as “natural” but are still “added,” and include things like maple syrup, honey and coconut sugar. These sweeteners are better than table sugar, but are still super concentrated and need to be eaten in small amounts.
On the other hand, sugar occurs naturally in fruit (a small apple or cup of berries contains approximately 15 grams), dairy, and some veggies such as beets, sweet potatoes and corn (which is technically a grain, I know!).
Here’s the biggest difference: That spoonful of refined table sugar added to your salad dressing or breakfast cereal causes inflammation and turns to fat quickly if it’s not needed for energy. The apple, meanwhile, contains other nutrients that impact how your body breaks down the sugar. Fiber, for instance, slows its digestion to head off a blood-sugar spike. Yogurt, on the other hand, contains protein that helps your body process the natural sugar (not the heaps of added sugar that some brands contain!) at a slower pace. Not to mention all of the other incredible nutrients you’re getting from those foods, such as vitamins, minerals, and probiotics.
The fact is: Nature is kind of a master of design, and most of the time, sugar occurs in a food for a reason that your body will parse out as it processes a food’s complex web of nutrients. Nature also doesn’t expect you to only eat one food over and over, so just don’t overdo it.
My Advice on Sugar
Again, this is not to say you should go on a banana-and-Greek yogurt diet. But if you’re eating mostly whole foods, you can focus on worrying about other things rather than wasting your time fretting about how sweet that sweet potato is.
There are just a few places natural sugar might present an issue:
Dried fruit: Eat dried fruit in small, controlled portions, since the sugar becomes ultra-concentrated in the drying process.
Fruit juice: Skip juices that are primarily fruit. When fruit is juiced, the fiber I mentioned earlier is stripped out, leaving way too much free-floating sugar behind. Make smoothies, instead, or go as green as possible with your juices.
RECIPE: Super Greens Green Juice
Other than that, feel free to enjoy natural sugar. You can use the time you save worrying about it to instead be on the lookout for added sugars lurking in unexpected places, such as tomato sauces, salad dressings and bread.
(Featured Photo: Shutterstock)