You’ve probably been to a birthday party and heard parents commenting on their kids’ sugar rush. Or sighed yourself at the hyperactive energy on display after a round of trick-or-treating or Valentine’s Day candies. But are sugar highs fact or fiction?
It turns out sugar rushes are a myth. Scientists have looked at what happens to your body after you eat a lot of sugar. You don’t get a sugar “high” or a rush of energy; you crash, actually! After about an hour, you feel more tired and worse than you did before eating sugar. While sugar highs aren’t real, cutting down on sugar is still a good idea. Let’s look at why.
What Is Added Sugar?
There are many types of sugar: white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, honey, corn syrup, palm sugar, molasses, maple syrup, agave nectar, date syrup, maltose, etc. Nutritionally, sugars are fairly similar. They are simple carbohydrates consisting of glucose, fructose, and/or sucrose. You don’t need any added sugar in a healthy diet.
Why Is Sugar Bad for Us?
Sugar rushes may be fake, but sugar crashes, tooth decay, and the risk of serious medical conditions when we eat too many sweets is real. Why is excess sugar unhealthy?
Our livers turn excess sugar into fat. Too much sugar can cause fat to be deposited on our waist. This type of fat, known as visceral fat, is particularly harmful to our health. It increases the risk of serious health issues, heart disease and type 2 diabetes among them.
How Much Sugar Can I Eat?
The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily sugar intake to less than 6 teaspoons for women and children, and less than 9 teaspoons for men. Babies and toddlers under the age of two should have no added sugars. The average American adult eats a whooping 77 grams (or 18 teaspoons) of sugar per day. And the numbers for American children are even worse.
To live longer, healthier lives, we need to consume less added sugars.
Where Does Added Sugar Come From?
We don’t need added sugars, and we’re getting too many. Where is it all coming from?
Sugary drinks are a big culprit, especially soft drinks. In America, this accounts for more than 47% of all added sugars we eat. Look at what foods you’re eating, read food labels, and try to cut back on these common sources of added sugar:
- Candy and gum
- Baked goods (brownies, cakes, pies, doughnuts, pastries, etc.)
- Frozen treats (ice cream, frozen yogurt, popsicles)
- Sports and energy drinks
- Processed, store-bought foods like cereals, breads, energy bars, yogurt, jelly and jams, salad dressings, ketchup, tomato sauce, and BBQ sauce
- Large amounts of dried fruit
- Flavored milk
- Coffee and tea
What About “Healthy” Sugars?
We can compare sugars by looking at where they come from and how much they are processed. White or table sugar and corn syrup, for example, are highly processed, and both are shown to have poor effects on human health. If you substitute date sugar or molasses, which are less processed, you’ll get more minerals and antioxidants. That’s not to say these substitute sugars are good for you—they’re still added sugar—but they are less bad for you.
Another way to consider sugar is by looking at the glycemic index (GI), or the rate at which your blood sugar level is raised. The higher the GI value, the more blood sugar levels are raised. Raised blood sugar levels can lead to disease. White sugar and corn syrup have a high glycemic index. Lower GI values can be had in sugars like agave nectar, honey, or maple syrup. Unfortunately, many of these so-called healthier sugars are also more expensive.
Fruit naturally contains some sugar. But unlike most foods with added sugar, fruit has a lot of other nutrients that we need for a balanced diet. Fruit is an excellent source of fiber, vitamin C, potassium, folate, and antioxidants. The fiber helps your body absorb the fruit’s sugar more slowly. Aim to eat two cups of whole fruit per day.
How to Reduce Sugar in Your Diet
It’s tempting to think you can simply substitute “bad” sugar for “healthy” sugar. The reality is that while healthier sugars like agave syrup may be a little better for you, they aren’t good for you either. Too much sugar is still too much sugar!
If you’re baking from scratch, replace sugar in a recipe with spices, unsweetened applesauce, and/or or mashed banana, or sub a plant-based sweetener such as stevia or monk fruit. You can usually reduce the amount of sugar called for by about one-third and often not notice the difference.
If you want to satisfy your sweet tooth or enjoy a quick snack or easy dessert, try a piece of fruit! Fresh, frozen, or canned fruit are all healthy choices.
And if you do indulge in a highly sugared food, take a smaller portion and eat it slowly.
Learn more about a heart-healthy diet here.
To sum up, some types of sugar are better for you than others, but sugar is still sugar. Our advice is to cut down on your sugar intake. Choose foods with little or no sugar listed in the ingredient list, eat whole fruits when you crave something sweet, and pick water instead of sugary beverages. Less sugar, more fruit, please!