There's Sugar, Then There's Sugar - Understanding the difference between sucrose and fruit sugar February 02, 2013 00:00

All sugar is not created equal. 

Understanding the difference between refined white and brown sugar and the natural sugars found in fresh, cooked, or dried fruits and vegetables is essential to making healthy food choices for you and your children.

How Refined Sugar Hurts Your Body

Refined sugar, scientifically known as sucrose, is composed of fructose and glucose molecules.  When you eat something containing this kind of sugar, like a candy bar or soda, you feel an instant rush.  Why?  Because of how the body metabolizes sucrose. 

When you consume sucrose, your body instantly releases insulin to combat the rapid rise in glucose levels.  Insulin's job is to help cells absorb the glucose and store it as fat for when your body needs energy later.  Because the sucrose  is introducing pure glucose into the body, the amount of insulin produced is overwhelming.  Your liver and muscles can store some of it, but much of it will get converted into fat, your body's energy storage facility.

While that burst of energy provided by refined sugar might be good for someone performing incredibly strenuous activity, like a firefighter running up several flights of stairs or an athlete preparing for a race, for most of us it just starts a vicious cycle of insulin resistance and sugar cravings.  Insulin resistance causes cells to say, “Whoa, no more glucose.”  Since the cells aren't opening their doors, the body actually produces more insulin to try to stabilize glucose levels. 

The bottom line is that high insulin levels build fat.  That's why refined carbohydrates and table sugar, as well as high fructose corn syrup, make you fat even when they are fat free.  Of course, this type of insulin regulation disorder can eventually cause Type 2 Diabetes and possibly affect heart function.

It doesn't stop there.  Insulin plays an important role in regulating brain function.  An inability to properly process insulin can potentially lead to psychological disorders like depression, anxiety, and memory loss.  Did you ever eat a pint of ice cream because you were depressed, only to have it make you feel even more depressed?  I'm not saying that the results are that instant, but the long-term correlation is there and being studied more thoroughly by mental health researchers.

Sucrose and Breastfeeding

While many nursing mothers crave sugar, it's better to grab an apple than a slice of cake.  When your blood sugar spikes as a result of eating something filled with sucrose, your nursing baby's blood sugar will spike, too.  Babies are not well-equipped to manage blood sugar spikes, and the unstable insulin production can interrupt the development of healthy physical and cognitive function.

The high levels of sugar in the breast milk can also cause early tooth decay, according to the Australian Breastfeeding Association.  This is especially true for babies nursed longer than twelve months.  Breast milk with high sugar content also increases the risk of thrush, a yeast infection caused by the high acid levels present in sugar.

Why is Natural Sugar Better?

The natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables have a different chemical makeup.  Fruit sugar is simply fructose, which must be broken down into sucrose and glucogen by the pancreas before it can be used as energy or stored in the fat cells.  This is why natural sugars rank lower on the glycemic index than sucrose.  It takes your body time to turn natural sugar into glucogen to be used by your cells, so  insulin doesn't have to rush in to balance suddenly high glucose levels.

When you consume healthy amounts of natural sugars from fruits, your body doesn't need to spike its insulin production.  Just as high levels of insulin are directly related to weight gain, low levels of insulin help keep you lean.

Furthermore, it's widely recognized among the medical community that eating lots of fruits and vegetables keeps your heart healthy, your blood pressure and cholesterol down, and your mind clear.  Not only is fructose a healthier form of sugar, the fruits and vegetables also provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber that a spoonful of sugar will definitely not give you.

Satisfying the Sweet Tooth

Even' the healthiest people want to indulge in a little something sweet once in a while, and in fact those cravings are your body's way of telling you it needs energy!  But don't fuel it with calories that aren't just empty, but potentially dangerous to your health.  Instead, appease your sugar craving with healthy alternatives like dates, dried cherries, dried apricots, coconut, nut butters, and a nearly unlimited variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. 

 

Once you switch to these healthier alternatives, you'll start to notice that sucrose-based desserts like ice cream, candy bars, and cookies taste sickly sweet.  Instead, you'll crave apples and almond butter, and your body will thank you for it.

 

 

 

 RESOURCES:

Turner, Joel.  Sugar's Negative Effect on Our Brains.  Kale University. 17 May 2012.http://kaleuniversity.org/6231-sugars-negative-effect-on-our-brains/

Griffin, Sharon.  The Effects of Sugar on Breastfed Babies.  Livestrong.  28 March 2011.http://www.livestrong.com/article/69073-effects-sugar-breastfed-babies/

Ketterer C, Tschritter O, Preissl H, Heni M, Häring HU, Fritsche A. Insulin sensitivity of the human brain. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2011 Aug;93 Suppl 1:S47-51. doi: 10.1016/S0168-8227(11)70013-4. Review. PubMed PMID: 21864751. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21864751

National Institute of Mental Health:  Diabetes and Depression. PsychCentral.http://psychcentral.com/lib/2008/diabetes-and-depression/all/1/

Effect of Fruit and Vegetables on Insulin Resistance.  NIH Clinical Trial.http://clinicaltrialsfeeds.org/clinical-trials/show/NCT00874341