Why We Need to Stop Demonizing Sugar
Any conversation with a knowledgeable nutritionist will likely result in frustration for the enthusiastic answer seeker. The reason being, very few things in nutrition are black and white. The answer to many of these ‘is this food good or bad’ questions is ‘it depends.’ Aside from trans fats, I would have a hard time coming up with a nutrient that is unequivocally bad and provides no benefit of any kind. In recent years, sugar has overtaken fat as the culprit for our country’s obesity and health problems. Are we casting blame in the right place?
What is Sugar?
It bothers me when I hear people, especially doctors, use the words sugar, carbohydrates, and glucose interchangeably. They are not the same. Sugar is a disaccharide, consisting of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. Stay with me here, I won’t get too ‘sciencey’ on you. Glucose is our body’s preferred energy source. It provides energy for our brain (good), exercise (good), can be stored in muscle cells as glycogen (good), and stored in fat cells (not so good). So one half of the equation is pretty good, glucose has some definite benefits for us. Fructose, on the other hand, is much more limited. Fructose is stored in the liver as glycogen (no problems there). However, the capacity of our liver glycogen will eventually fill up. Once it reaches capacity, the excess fructose has to go somewhere. Unlike glucose, fructose can’t be used by most of our cells. Excess fructose in the liver is converted to triglycerides, which can then be stored as fat (not good).
Should Fructose be Avoided Completely?
As mentioned, fructose is metabolized in the liver. What many don’t realize is that your liver is a huge organ, it’s about the size of a football. In times of need, like during low carb dieting, fasting, sleeping, or exercising, your liver will pump out that stored glycogen to be used. Your pancreas will secrete a hormone called glucagon to signal the liver to release stored glycogen in these situations. Point is, those glycogen stores in the liver will deplete over time, so fructose does serve a purpose. While it wouldn’t be optimal to get the majority of your carbohydrates from fructose, it shouldn’t be avoided altogether.
It is clear that an optimal diet would consist of proportionately more glucose than fructose, as glucose can provide more for us overall. Starchy carbohydrates like rice, sweet potatoes, and oats are nearly 100% glucose. However, glucose is not completely absolved of wrongdoing. Remember that any glucose not used for immediate energy, brain function, or storage as muscle glycogen will be stored in fat cells. You need to be mindful of your current situation, and not overeat starchy carbohydrates either.
What About Healthier Sugars Like Agave
Marketing is extraordinary. You may find agave in the organic/healthy section of your supermarket. However, agave is about 75% fructose, which is even more than the dreaded high fructose corn syrup.
In general, do most people eat too much sugar? Absolutely. But, they overeat on starches and fats as well. It would irresponsible to cast blame on one nutrient for our collective health problems. Remember Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is often to correct one. Collectively, we eat too much and exercise too little.