Cracking the Sugar Code: A Healthier Approach to Sweetening

As a dietitian, one of the most common questions I get asked is a question around sugar. How much should I be eating? What about my kids? What about artificial sweeteners? Is it smarter to use a natural sugar like honey? What hidden ingredients should I be watching for? 

Welcome to one of the sweetest times of the year as we approach Valentine’s Day and National Heart Health Month. In this blog post, we’re about to dive deep into the secrets of sugar’s impact on heart health, explore alternatives, and learn how to make choices that not only satisfy our taste buds but also keep our hearts happy and maybe even make our kids less hyper. 

 

The Sugar-Heart Connection

Our hearts are the powerhouse of our circulatory system. And they are majorly affected by our dietary choices, especially when it comes to sugar. Excessive sugar consumption, particularly from added sugars in processed foods and sugary drinks (yup even those fun Starbucks drinks), initiates a cascade of events that pose risks to cardiovascular health. Bet you didn’t think much about sugar and your heart, did you? Because most of us are thinking about sugar and its impact on our waistline and while this can be true, excess sugar affects more than just our body size. One major concern with excessive sugar intake and your heart health is inflammation; chronic inflammation triggered by high sugar intake has been linked to the development and progression of cardiovascular diseases.

Moreover, a diet rich in added sugars contributes to elevated levels of triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood, increasing the risk of heart disease. I’ve actually seen this happen to adults (and teens!) who drink things like regular soda, Gatorade, and sweet tea. Excessive sugar intake is also associated with insulin resistance, a condition where cells become less responsive to insulin, leading to metabolic imbalances that heighten the risk of heart issues, strokes, and type 2 diabetes. And for women, heart disease is the number one killer in the United States. Up to 44% of women are affected by heart disease. Girl….. FORTY-FOUR PERCENT! That’s really high!

Additionally, the weight gain often associated with high sugar diets places added strain on the heart, as it works harder to pump blood throughout the body. So while I always teach about being a size that feels good and right for you, it is important to make sure you’re maintaining a body weight that your body can handle. 

I hope by understanding this sugar-heart connection, you’re able to make better food choices for your body and heart. By reducing added sugar intake, opting for whole foods, and consuming natural sweeteners in moderation, we can significantly contribute to maintaining great cardiovascular health. I’ll never recommend cutting sugar out of your diet completely. It’s not realistic and your body does use sugar for energy. But we can absolutely do a better job of not eating as much and choosing the natural sugars that have additional nutritional benefits. By doing this, you’ll keep your heart healthy for a really long time!

 

The Metabolism Mystery: How Sugar Falls Short

Now, let’s talk metabolism and get a better understanding of how sugar, while delivering a quick energy boost, often leaves us wanting more. When we consume sugary treats, our blood sugar levels spike rapidly, prompting a surge of energy. However, this surge is short-lived. Soon after, insulin rushes in to regulate the increased blood sugar, causing a subsequent crash in energy levels. This rollercoaster effect not only leaves us feeling fatigued but also hinders our body’s ability to maintain a stable and sustained level of energy.

Unlike complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, which provide a slow and steady release of energy, the simple sugars in many processed foods offer a rapid but fleeting burst of energy. The result? We find ourselves reaching for more sugary snacks in an attempt to recapture that initial energy high, creating a cycle of highs and lows that can take a toll on our overall well-being. Breaking free from this cycle involves rethinking our approach to fueling our bodies, opting for nutrient-dense foods that provide lasting energy without the accompanying crashes. But once you get this figured out, you’re going to be shocked at just how much nutrition really does play a role in your energy levels!

In addition to the energy roller coaster, excessive sugar intake has been linked to insulin resistance, a condition where our cells become less responsive to insulin’s signals. This not only disrupts the body’s ability to manage blood sugar effectively but also contributes to the development of metabolic imbalances. To have a metabolism that runs like a dream, it’s essential to eat a balanced diet that includes a mix of complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein – a combination that supports a steady release of energy and nurtures our metabolism for the long haul. 

 

Tips for Reducing Added Sugars

Here’s the deal with added sugar. Added sugar isn’t terrible in small quantities and it helps enjoy some of our favorites…. Like brownies…. And chocolate chip cookies…. Which are two of my personal favorites. But the reality is that most of us eat too much added sugar on a daily basis. I want to give you some helpful tips for lowering the added sugar in your diet! 

  • Check those nutritional labels for hidden sugars in seemingly innocent products. Added sugars go by many aliases, including sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, and various syrups, so being familiar with these terms can help you make informed choices. Opt for whole foods where sugars occur naturally alongside essential nutrients. Fruits, for example, offer a sweet fix bundled with fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants – a package that supports overall health while satisfying your sweet tooth.
  • The next step to smart sweetening is a gradual reduction of added sugars in your recipes. Experiment with lowering sugar quantities in your favorite dishes. Often, you’ll find that you can maintain the sweetness while using less sugar than a recipe calls for. This adjustment not only trains your taste buds to appreciate flavors in their natural state but also contributes to a gradual recalibration of your overall palate. Consider exploring the world of natural sweeteners such as honey or maple syrup. Though honey and maple syrup still contain sugar and should be used sparingly, they can be a great alternative for refined sugars. These alternatives bring their own distinct flavors to the table and, when used mindfully, can add sweetness to your favorite dishes without the drawbacks of excessive added sugars. Making these small shifts can lead to significant changes in your overall health.

 

How Much is Too Much?

The American Heart Association recommends that women and children limit added sugar to no more than 25 grams per day and men should limit their added sugar intake to 36 grams per day. Remember, this is the added sugar, not total sugar. 

There are no recommended limits on total sugar intake unless you have a medical condition that may suggest otherwise. This is because all sugars aren’t equal. Complex carbohydrates like potatoes and oats break down into simple sugars when they’re digested, however, both of these foods provide some great nutritional benefit, therefore don’t need to be limited (in most people) like table sugar. 

I’ll explain later why the combo of your meal is more important than any single food! But I want to be clear that carbohydrates (sugars) that come from whole food sources are our body’s top nutrient for energy production. Carbohydrates from whole food sources should make up nearly half of our calories for the day in a well-balanced diet.

 

Sugar Substitutes: Here’s the Deal

We can’t talk about sugar without covering the sugar substitutes, can we? There are several out there on the market, but one of my favorites is Stevia. Stevia is derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant and adds sweetness without the added calories plus it’s all natural. Monk fruit is another natural sweetener that brings sweetness from the extract of the Siraitia grosvenorii fruit. With zero calories and a natural source of sweetness, it’s a fantastic option for those seeking a sugar alternative that doesn’t compromise on taste.

Erythritol, a sugar alcohol, is gaining popularity for its natural origin and its minimal impact on blood sugar levels. It occurs naturally in fruits like grapes and melons, and its sweetening properties make it a go-to choice for those watching their sugar intake. While sweeteners like erythritol seem to be a much better choice, it’s essential to approach them with moderation. Too much of any sweetener, even those deemed healthier, can have negative side effects. As with everything in the food world, moderation and whole food sources are key!

 

Balancing Act: The Combo Matters

Did you know what you eat with your sugar containing foods can actually stabilize your blood sugar and keep it from spiking as high? It can also keep you from having “sugar crashes” an hour or so after you eat sugar. While this doesn’t change the health risks of too much added sugar in your diet, it can help you feel a whole lot better and impact your food choices later in the day!

Protein and heart healthy fats can help stabilize your blood sugar, but I especially love protein for this. When you pair sugar with protein, the absorption of sugar slows down, preventing the rapid spike and subsequent crash in energy levels. This dynamic duo not only keeps you feeling satisfied for longer but also supports sustained energy release, steering clear of the energy rollercoaster that often accompanies sugary indulgences. So, the next time you reach for that sweet treat, consider adding a protein source or have your sweet treat after a meal. Whether it’s a handful of almonds, some Greek yogurt, or a slice of cheese, these protein sidekicks transform your sweet treat into a balanced and energy-sustaining delight. It’s a win-win for your belly, your blood sugar, and your health. 

 

Hidden Sugar Substitutes

One of the hardest parts of navigating the sugar world is being aware of what all the different names for sugar are. Sugars like high-fructose corn syrup which I mentioned earlier are often hidden in processed foods and we need to be paying attention to those food labels.

When shopping, keep an eye out for common names of artificial sweeteners and high-fructose corn syrup that often sneak into the ingredients list of processed foods. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose are frequently used to enhance sweetness without the caloric load of sugar. Now while artificial sweeteners have been shown to be safe in small amounts, we do need to make sure we’re truly eating them sparingly. Similarly, high-fructose corn syrup, often listed simply as “corn syrup” or “HFCS,” is a sweetening agent derived from corn starch. While it’s widely used in the food industry for its affordability, its association with health issues has led many to scrutinize product labels for its presence. Next time you’re at the store, take a look at some labels to compare ingredients!

 

Sugar Wrap Up

I want to end this blog post by reiterating, a little sugar in your diet is okay. Truly, in small amounts it will not negatively impact your health. My biggest suggestion for you iis to eat more whole foods and less processed foods. This alone will decrease the amount of added sugar in your diet. Another area you can improve on is your beverage choices. Choosingi unsweetened or less sweetened drinks will help a ton. 

Also keep in mind that many products will add sugar in the form of “natural sugar”.  For example, many products now are being sweetened with honey or maple syrup. This is still a form of added sugar to the product, but the difference is that it’s a natural source. These products are still okay to eat, but just know your body will respond similarly to honey as it does cane sugar. 

I hope you’ll use this information that I shared to make better choices when it comes to sugar-filled foods! If you’re not already following me on social media, make sure to catch up with me over at @wholesomenutritionco on Instagram where I’ll be sharing more information on sugar!