One of the reasons dieting can be such a challenge is that nutrition science is a relatively new discipline. Since the 1950s, the scientific conception of how the body metabolizes certain types of foods and nutrients has gone through many shifts. An early emphasis on the dangers of vitamin deficiency, for instance, has receded in favor of a more comprehensive understanding of the underlying biochemical processes. Even the well-documented impact of fat, salt, and cholesterol on body weight and overall health no longer appear to be as influential as one particular factor: sugar consumption.
Though we mostly think of sugar as the white powdery stuff that goes in coffee, the term can really refer to any of a number of sweet-tasting carbohydrates that can be categorized as either simple or complex. Even though they aren’t usually referred to as sugars, complex carbohydrates are made up of multiple simple sugar molecules and are found in whole foods like fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. They are called “complex” because they are composed of smaller molecules joined by chemical bonds and take longer to be broken down by the body.
Simple carbohydrates, by contrast, are composed of either one (monosaccharides) or two (disaccharides) sugar molecules, and they are what we typically think of when we talk about sugar. Having a simpler structure and fewer chemical bonds makes these sugar molecules much easier to break down during the digestive process. Below are some of the most common examples:
Another way of categorizing different types of sugar is to distinguish between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars. Some sugars, like fructose and lactose, are found naturally in certain types of food. Any sugar that is added to a food during processing or preparation is considered an added sugar. Examples include table sugar, maple syrup, cane sugar, or chemically manufactured sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup.
Generally speaking, natural sugars can be part of a healthy, balanced diet when consumed in moderation. The key difference between natural and added sugars has to do with the way they impact the concentration of glucose in the blood. Research from the last few decades has demonstrated that this measure, known as blood sugar level, is a major factor in the development of obesity and a wide variety of obesity-related conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Whereas fructose and lactose tend to have a minimal effect on blood sugar, glucose and sucrose increase blood sugar levels. Foods that contain these simple sugars are quickly broken down during digestion into singular glucose molecules and are absorbed by the small intestine. Glucose is then carried away by the bloodstream to the liver and pancreas where it is converted to glycogen and can be immediately used as energy. Excess glucose is then typically stored as glycogen in muscle tissue or as lipids in adipose tissue.
Before being converted to glycogen, however, the glucose passes through the pancreas and triggers the release of the hormone called insulin. Since too much glucose in the blood can be harmful, the primary purpose of insulin is to regulate metabolism by removing excess glucose and converting it to glycogen or stored fat. Once glucose levels drop, insulin levels also drop and this signals the liver to release some of the stored energy for general use (the delay in this process is also why we sometimes experience a sugar rush followed by a “crash” of low energy).
Problems arise, however, when we eat a lot of sugar on a regular basis. The same metabolic interaction between glucose and insulin happens every time, but gradually more and more insulin gets secreted to handle high blood sugar. Eventually, cells stop responding to the effects of insulin and can no longer convert as much glucose; this is called insulin resistance, and it means that future increases in blood sugar cause more and more glucose to be converted to fat instead of glycogen. This is one of the main pathways to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and a number of other health problems.
With diabetes and other obesity-related conditions on the rise all over the world, it’s worth asking: how much sugar is OK to consume? According to dietary guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA), the recommended maximum daily sugar intake is 36 grams of sugar (9 teaspoons) for men and 25 grams of sugar (6 teaspoons) for women. This recommendation is based on a 2000-calorie diet, and it includes any and all added sugars but excludes natural sugars like fructose and lactose. For reference, one 12-ounce can of soda has approximately 10 teaspoons of sugar that are added for sweetness.
Though daily calories, fat content, and impact on cholesterol are all important factors to consider, the research is clear that sugary foods and beverages are one of the biggest concerns in the average American diet. Even standard breakfast items like cereal and fruit juice that have traditionally been thought of as “healthy” actually have high sugar content. In addition to spiking insulin levels, added sugars also increase a hormone called ghrelin that increases appetite and food cravings.
One of the best ways to reduce sugar consumption is to become an avid reader of food labels and ingredient lists. Once you start examining the contents of what you eat, you might be surprised to discover how much sugar is involved—especially in pre-processed and packaged foods. An easy first step is to cut down on soft drinks and other sugary drinks, but you will eventually want to bypass most processed foods in favor of whole foods and healthy eating.
Assessing your sugar intake is an important first step, but often losing weight requires more than just minor tweaks to your diet. If you’ve struggled to lose weight through dieting alone, it may be time for a new approach. At True You Weight Loss, we offer an alternative to the traditional methods in the form of endoscopic weight loss procedures. If you would like more information about gastric balloons, sleeve gastroplasty, or endoscopic revision, contact us today to request a consultation. Freedom is waiting!