You’ve probably heard a lot of talk about how unhealthy sugar is and how it can cause some serious health problems. I’m not here to promote the consumption of excessive sugar – I’ve written countless articles on the risks of sugars and how it should be reduced in the British diet, so I’m not here to vindicate it.
However, in my time writing on the negative health effects of sugars, I’ve also seen a lot of demonizing. Diets that focus on no sugar abound, and I’ve seen too many sensationalist articles that discuss how it's “poisonous”: there are some very obvious problems with this culture and approach. Today, I’m going to share a few simple facts about sugar and dispel some of the myths that surround sugar.
(Disclaimer: I have not been “Paid-off” by the sugar industry, just in case you’re worried)
Sugar is an ‘umbrella term’ for certain short-chain carbohydrates. It comes in various forms, but the difference between a sugar and other carbohydrates (like starch) is that they are composed of fewer glucose molecules. Glucose is the purest form of sugar, and your body converts dietary carbohydrates into this substance to transfer energy around the body.
One of the most interesting facts about sugars and other carbohydrates, like starches, is that the number of linked glucose molecules (or ‘polymeric length’ if you’re at a dinner party) is the greatest distinguishing factor. If you could, theoretically, link enough singular glucose molecules together properly, they’d become a starch. This is key to re-thinking sugar.
I could go on a long diatribe about this subject, but the simple answer you’re looking for is: no, sugar is not bad for you. This is probably contrary to everything you’ve heard, and it is part of a longer, less eye-catching sentence:
It's is not bad for you, except in the context of a whole diet, lifestyle, and in the right quantity/proportion.
I’m hesitant to ever consider any class of food or nutrient to be “unhealthy”. Culturally, we’ve managed to associate both fats and sugars with poor health and danger of death. After decades of demonizing fats, they’ve now become incredibly popular, and sugar has become the “cause of obesity”. The problem is the same in both cases, but nobody seems to have learned the lesson: foods are only good or bad in context.
The key fact about sugar is that it is fast-absorbing. This is the direct result of the short-chain structure of sugar compared to starches and other carbohydrates. This single fact explains its role in the diet and the way that it impacts on problems like Diabetes, and other ‘metabolic disorders’.
This simple chemical fact is why they are linked to insulin in a way other carbs aren’t: they break down rapidly and cause “spikes” in insulin. Two key factors in this process are that, firstly, insulin response isn’t ‘bad’, and starches can also cause these spikes in insulin when consumed in high enough quantities, no matter how “healthy” the carbohydrate source is. In this sense, the overall carbohydrate consumption, and how quickly they are digested, are the main variables in the impact of different types of carbohydrates on insulin and health.
On the other hand, sugar and other forms of carbohydrates have been closely linked to improved sports and exercise performance. A small amount of carbohydrate in a drink, even when simply detected in the mouth, has been shown to improve short-term performance. This is enlightening because it shows that sugars’ fast-absorbing nature is positive in certain circumstances, and hints at when and how sugars are important for dietary structure and exercise performance.
The key fact about sugar is this: it is short-term fuel for exercise and other forms of strenuous activity. The problem with sugar in the diet occurs primarily when it is consumed by sedentary individuals, in excess, or at a time when exercise is nowhere to be seen. For the athlete, high-quality sugar sources play a key role and are recruited in a way that promotes it as another dietary tool, like protein or starches, to be fit into the diet tactically.
There are a few steps to focusing your overall intake and how you consider carbohydrates in your diet overall.
This last point is key and will be key to making sugar work for you. For example, if you work out after work at 5 pm, you should be consuming low-GI carbohydrates until at least 3:30. After this time, however, it makes sense to consume mid-GI carbohydrates and then during (or immediately before/after) training, a small amount of sugar is a great way to fuel your workout. After the workout has finished and you’ve had a post-workout meal, carbohydrates should be a low-mid GI again, allowing you to fuel the recovery process and avoid excessive sugar intake.
Your diet should still be packed with high-quality carbohydrates and fat sources, as well as fiber and plenty of vitamins and minerals, but manipulating your sugar intake in line with the timing of your day and your exercise is a great way to improve performance. It also reduces the negative effects on health, when consumed in the correct quantities.
Much ado has been made about the difference between various types of sugar and the sources you might use to consume them. There are plenty of people who have sworn off sugars, only to take their tea with honey because it “isn’t sugar, so it’s healthy!”. Don’t trust these people: they don’t know what they’re talking about.
The type of sugar doesn’t make much difference. While many low-quality information sources have stressed the functional differences between fructose and glucose, the differences are mostly irrelevant – even “high-fructose” corn syrups only contain 5% more fructose than regular forms of sugar. The discussion of the poor health effects of fructose is only relevant in excessively high levels of any sugar intake: if you’re not eating ridiculous amounts of sugar, you probably won’t notice any health differences between glucose- and fructose-dominant sugar sources.
The source of sugar is also mostly-irrelevant. When we talk about the health benefits of unrefined sugars, it is important to point out that this is a comparison between the sugar found in whole foods (such as a banana) and the sweetening of honey or table sugar. Honey and table sugar are “refined” in the sense that they are pure-sugar products that have been extracted from a more complex nutritional material.
Interestingly, comparisons of table sugar and honey show that there is very little difference in terms of ‘complexity’: while table sugar tends to be a disaccharide (two molecules, in this case, glucose and fructose), where honey is either disaccharide or oligosaccharide (‘a few’ molecules). Be sure to remember this for the next time that someone tells you about the magical health effects of honey, agave syrup, or any other liquid form of sugar: it’s the same thing.
Using sugar in your diet relies on a balance of timing and quantity. Keep sugars low: there’s no benefit to eating added-sugar products for the vast majority of your day, and they will likely only have a negative effect if consumed at a distance (in time) from exercise. If you feel the need for sugar throughout the day, stick to whole food sources of sugar like fresh fruit – particularly dark berries, where possible.