It’s said that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but we all know too much sugar can be bad for meal management. With so many references to sugar, it can be difficult to make healthy choices.
“Most people seem to find confusing the multitude of sugar products available on the market,” said Lynn McLellan, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator on staff at Baylor Scott & White Health.
Lynn brings more than 25 years of experience in working with patients counseling and helping them take control of their sugar levels.
Lynn said it can be difficult to understand sugar and what impact it can have on your health. To help, she explains carbohydrates, sugars, starches and what it all means for you and your meal plan.
Is there a Difference among Sugars?
“The truth is, there are very little differences between honey, table sugar, turbinado sugar, coconut sugar, brown sugar or agave nectar,” Lynn said.
Lynn said sugars all provide between 11 calories and 21 calories per teaspoon. Some are sweeter than others, so this increases the need for more or less sugar to reach the same sweetness.
“In terms of vitamins and minerals, they provide very little, no matter which one you choose,” Lynn said. “To make matters worse, add in the multitude of pastas, rice and the new world grains, which seem to have flooded the market, and you will find yourself in a real pickle.”
Sugars are a part of many different foods, and if we are not careful, we can be consuming sugar without even knowing it.
Sugars, Starches…What is it all about?
To understand sugar, you must first understand carbohydrates.
“Carbohydrates are one of the six categories of nutrients and also the preferred and major source for our body,” Lynn said. “It is also the only source of energy the brain will use.”
In order to understand carbohydrates better, we need to classify them into three categories:
- Simple: honey, table sugar, turbinado sugar, brown sugar, fruits
- Complex (also called starches): grains, legumes, potatoes, pasta
- Fiber: found in the skin of fruits, the bran of grains, skin and inside of legumes
“These provide a rapid release of energy, whether they occur naturally in fruit or they are added sugars,” Lynn said.
The best source of simple carbohydrates is from fruits or vegetables because they also contain vitamins, minerals and fiber. Fiber will help you feel fuller longer and help you avoid constipation.
On the contrary, table sugar, honey, agave, brown sugar, maple syrup only provides calories, which will burn off very fast.
“These are kind of like cotton candy, which gives you the initial sugar rush and then makes you crash, because the energy derived from it has been used very fast,” Lynn said.
Complex carbohydrates (starches)
Complex carbohydrates are also composed of simple sugars, but which have been connected through various patterns and take a longer time to break down because of the connections.
“We do not think of them as sugars, because complete breakdown of these nutrients only occurs in the stomach; therefore, we cannot taste the sweet taste,” Lynn said.
You may not have thought of your spaghetti dinner containing sugar, but it does. These starches are in fact the preferred source of energy because their breakdown provides a slow and steady release of energy and does not affect our blood sugar as strongly as the simple sugars do.
Lynn recommends whole grains because they provide a more controlled release of sugar into your blood, and also provide fiber, vitamins and minerals.
“To ensure you are reaping the benefits, purchase products which have the Whole Grain Council seal, which ensures the product is made with whole grains or is 100 percent whole grain,” Lynn said.
“Fiber does not provide energy because our body cannot break it down,” Lynn said.
Instead, fiber passes through our digestive system, providing roughage for our digested material. Lynn said that small amounts of fiber are broken down by the bacteria which reside in our colon. This provides much-needed nutrition for these microorganisms, which help improve our gut health.