Ever wondered what the difference between the sugar in an apple and a marshmallow is? Well, the chemical makeup of the sugar itself might not be so distinct, but the other nutrients found in these foods are what make all the difference. Let’s dive into the effects of natural and added sugars on the body.
First, we’ll be unpacking what sugar actually is – it’s made up of sucrose, which is divided into fructose and glucose. Unlike glucose, which is absorbed into the small intestine and used as energy, fructose can’t be further broken down by the body and needs the liver to metabolise it. This puts a lot of strain on our livers, especially if we overindulge in the sweet stuff. The results are dangerous health issues including heart disease, liver failure and obesity. Glucose, on the other hand, is the main kind of sugar found in our blood and it’s a key source of our body’s energy. We get it from the foods we eat, though it can also be produced by our bodies without dietary assistance. Insulin is one of the hormones responsible for managing our glucose levels, which is why it’s so important to eat sugary foods in moderation – insulin resistance often occurs when we’ve overloaded our bodies with sugar – particularly fructose, but we’ll get into that in just a moment.
Why we can eat natural sugars
When we talk about natural sugars, we’re referring to those which naturally occur in a number of foods like fruit, veggies and grains. In the case of dairy, we’ve got lactose, a form of sugar, naturally occurring here, too. You don’t need to avoid these foods because they have other nutritional aspects which slow the absorption of the sugar, meaning our liver and bloodstream don’t get the same intense workout that comes with junk food or highly-processed snacks. The problem arises when we’re missing these nutrients – think fibre and protein – and our blood sugar spikes and drops in such a way that can result in insulin resistance and weight gain if repeated over time. Fibre is one of the most important elements of stable blood sugars – this stuff is what helps us safely consume foods with natural sugars. Not only does it help our bodies break down sugar, it also slows the absorption of it. In fruit, for instance, the fructose binds to the fibre, and this is what slows the sugar absorption. If you’re looking for a low fructose fruit, pineapple and passionfruit are great options. Some fruits that have the lowest levels of fructose include passionfruit and pineapple. But we’re talking about whole fruit and vegetables here, not juice. Juice has little fibre, meaning you’re more likely to end up with a blood sugar spike. Remember, our body doesn’t know whether the sugar we’re consuming comes from fruit or junk food, but it does benefit from the nutrients that come along for the ride. This leads us into foods with added sugars and how they affect the body.
How added sugars affect your health
Added sugars are those which are added to a product as an extra ingredient, rather than something that was already there. While refined sugars may originate from natural sources, there’s nothing naturally-occurring about its presence in a range of household staples, from bread to cereal. These ultra-processed foods lack essential nutrients and result in our bodies having to work overtime to process them. Sugar is a quick energy source and when we don’t make use of it, it simply gets stored in the body – in the case of added sugars, we process these far quicker and often end up with a blood-sugar crash. These come with fatigue, mood swings and cravings. This can lead us to a sugar addiction, as we get lost in the cycle of craving sugar and crashing from consuming highly-palatable, processed foods. The consequences of excess sugar consumption are massive, as we’re seeing rates of obesity rising at an alarming rate. Cases have tripled since 1975, with over 1.9 billion people living with the condition, and studies have found a direct link between obesity and excessive fructose intake, with researchers finding it causes the development of visceral fat. This is the kind of fat that wraps around the abdominal organs, and it’s more dangerous than subcutaneous fat, which is generally harmless and is found between the skin and the external abdominal wall. One of the biggest consequences of this is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Affecting around a quarter of the population, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is projected to become the become the leading cause of cirrhosis. One study shows 12% of kids are affected by this condition too, and unfortunately it’s not surprising, considering their lunchboxes are often packed with processed foods with hidden sugars. The antidote is to prioritise whole, fresh food over ultra-processed products. Think fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and minimally-processed dairy and fermented foods.
So, while the makeup of sugar in naturally-occurring and added states is generally the same, the effect on the body is anything but, and it all comes down to the nutritional profile of the foods these sugars belong to.
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