The interesting thing about sugar is that it has been scientifically proven to be addictive, both psychologically and physiologically. And what is even more interesting about it to a nutrition geek like me, is that it is processed differently in your body than other sugars. Now, I am not talking about naturally occurring sugars like the kinds you find in fruit (although I will speak to that a little later). I am talking about refined sugar. White cane sugar. Brown sugar. Fancy turbinado sugar. Agave nectar. Hate to break it to all y’all out there who bought into those health claims, but agave actually has more fructose than any commercial sweetener, including ::gasp:: high fructose corn syrup.And fructose is where we start to get in trouble. The basic equation that you need to know is glucose + fructose = sucrose. And sucrose = sugar. As many of us know, glucose is essential to human life. It is the sole source of energy for red blood cells and the primary source of energy for the brain. It is stored in our muscles and liver as glycogen to be used during physical activity. Did I say that it was essential?
Fructose, on the other hand, is not. And while eating excess glucose or fructose in any form can contribute to unwanted accumulation of fat (adipose tissue), fructose is preferentially shunted to formation of fat regardless of whether or not it is eaten in excess. The one exception to this rule would be for athletes following a strenuous bout of exercise, when fructose can actually replace depleted glycogen stores in the liver twice as fast as glucose by itself.
But for most of us on a typical day, or even if we have had a particularly grueling workout (think Monday night or Saturday morning in the studio, coupling Body Engineering Chair with HIIT), if we have refueled already, the fructose that we consume in our diets is metabolized as fat in the liver. In fact, up to three times as much fat is generated in the liver as a result of eating the combination of glucose and fructose (SUGAR) as opposed to eating fructose by itself.
And where would you find fructose by itself? Fruit! The great thing about fruit though, in contrast to sugar you might find elsewhere, is that it also contains fiber. This is assuming that we are talking about whole fruit not processed fruit. Fiber slows down the absorption rate of fructose and also generates fullness signals in your body that indicate satiety.
And speaking of satiety (and this will be my last bit of science before I sign off), fructose has actually been shown to suppress the sole satiety hormone that we have (leptin) and to be less effective in suppressing ghrelin, one of our appetite stimulating hormones. So, here is another equation for you: less satiety (leptin) + more hunger (ghrelin) = excessive consumption = things like the obesity epidemic. And, on a smaller scale, why I still can’t seem to stop adding chocolate chips into my morning yogurt.
So, what are we to do with all of this information? Go on a juice cleanse? Cut out sugar for good, forever, no matter what (starting tomorrow, of course)? Cry defeated into a box of donuts? I don’t believe that any of these options are the best ones. Being too rigid with your diet can lead to a major backlash and being too lenient can cause all sorts of health problems down the road.
If you don’t eat any sugar already, I salute you. Keep doing what you’re doing! For those of you who struggle with this the way I have recently, I encourage you to try what has been slowly starting to work for me: pay attention. Look at where you are adding sugar in your diet. Look at labels. Inventory your sugar grams. Choose one treat day a week. Ideally, according to health professionals, adults should eat around 25 grams of added sugar per day (this is equal to about 6-and-a-quarter teaspoons) and no more than 50 grams. On average, American adults are eating 82 grams, or the equivalent of 19-and-a-half teaspoons. As a community, let’s see what we can do to start to bring down that average. Today, I commit to you to pay attention to the added sugars that I am consuming in my diet. Share in the comments or on Facebook about ways that you have found to get back on the beam in the days following the holiday season. Feedback always helps.