Healthy Choices with Health Coach Liza Baker: What’s the big deal about sugar?

Some of us may still be coming down from the insane amounts of sugar we consumed over the holidays (holidaze? holimonth?) while others may simply consume more sugar than we need on a regular basis.

Some facts I picked up in a continuing education course on emotional eating:

Whoaaaaaa. Hold on a sec. So that means multiple huge containers of pop some of us consume daily are out? That we shouldn’t finish off the huge drink before the movie and go back for the super-cheap refill? (Oh wait, are we still going to the movies? It feels like a vague memory….)

That’s right, sugary beverages (including soda pop, those desserts-masquerading-as-coffee, flavored milks, energy drinks, and many juices) are the largest single source of added sugars in our diets—approximately 47% of them!

So what does all that added sugar do? It’s directly linked to two startling facts:

Sugar basics

Let’s back up and take a look at what sugar actually is, a form of carbohydrates, which come in three forms:

  1. Monosaccharides—simple sugars that are quickly absorbed—include glucose, fructose, and galactose.
  2. Disaccharides—made up of combinations of two monosaccarhides:
    1. Lactose = glucose + galactose
    2. Maltose = glucose + glucose
    3. Sucrose = glucose + fructose
  3. Polysaccharides—made up of long chains of monosaccharides and include starch, cellulose, and glycogen.

On a practical level, what does sugar do? It plays many roles in our food!

  • Sugar sweetens our food. (Duh, right.)
  • It activates yeast—which is why, if you bake, you need to mix dry yeast with a little sugar, not just water, to make it work.
  • It stabilizes and preserves foods, giving them a longer shelf life—even at room temperature. Yup, that’s exactly why the foods in the Heart of Darkness middle aisles don’t need to be refrigerated—well, that and all the artificial preservatives!
  • It balances flavors. Here’s a neat trick: did you add too much spice to your dish? Add a little sugar, and it will cool it down.
  • It tenderizes baked goods. I once had a friend tell me that she just couldn’t replicate how tender my cakes come out. When pressed, she admitted that she thought there was just too much sugar in the recipe, so she’d cut it in half…. Baking relies on chemistry, people! If you understand that, you can alter recipes more easily; if you don’t, you’ll end up with a mess on your hands.

So don’t we need sugar?

Yup, we do. And we need certain kinds in certain amounts from particular foods.

No matter the source, the body breaks all carbohydrates down into monosaccharides for energy, and it prefers glucose—quick energy! Our hungriest organ is the brain, and it doesn’t want to mess around waiting for the body to break carbs down into usable glucose: it’s why we so often reach for sugary drinks and snacks when we need a hit of energy.

What happens when you suddenly flood your system with simple sugars, though, is that you get a fast burst of energy followed by a crash, which sends you on the hunt for more sugar: the pancreas, reacting to too much sugar in the bloodstream, creates insulin, which shuttles the glucose to our cells for storage—more energy to use later. Over time, under constant assault by our food choices, the poor pancreas produces less insulin and/or less effective insulin, which can lead to weight gain and type 2 diabetes.

The real culprit is added sugar. Most whole foods contain natural sugars—that’s why they’re sweet! Fruit, dairy, and whole grains are the best examples of these foods. Importantly, these foods also have a lot of other nutrients:

  • Whole fruits contain fiber, which makes us feel full, feeds our good gut bacteria, and cleans out our digestive tract.
  • Whether you consume them or not, dairy products—whole ones—contain fat and protein, which also slow the digestion of the sugars they naturally contain.
  • Whole grains also contain a lot of fiber and a small amount of protein and fat, so the sugar hit is mediated a bit.

A design flaw?

Why are we so prone to craving sugar? If we look into this, it almost feels like there’s a flaw in the design of our body’s (actually miraculous) system.

Historically speaking, naturally sweet foods tend to be safe for consumption and provide energy that can be stored away for leaner times. (Isn’t it magical that many sweet fruits and vegetables are at their peak just before the cold weather sets in?) Bitter foods put the body on notice that they might be toxic.

Additionally, sweet foods trigger a number of brain chemicals that lead to feeling good: dopamine, serotonin, and beta endorphins. In our high-octane, stressed-out lives, pleasure can be rare, so we reach for sweet foods to essentially medicate ourselves into feeling good.

And this is where the food scientists come in: their job is to make sure we get hooked and keep eating (and therefore buying) their companies’ products. When it was discovered that fructose does not trigger the secretion of leptin (the hormone that sends our brain a signal that we’re full), they found a way to leverage that: high fructose corn syrup is not only sweeter and less expensive than sugar—it doesn’t make us feel full! Mission accomplished.

So now what?

I hate it when someone gives me lots of bad news, then leaves me hanging on the line for a way forward. (Hello, 2020, I see you!)

I also hate it when someone gives me way too much advice and leaves me feeling overwhelmed and unsure where to begin!

So if you’re ready to kick sugar to the curb once and for all, let’s do this together, one baby step at a time. (Full disclosure: I may fall into the oh-my-god-I-ate-way-too-much-sugar-over-the-holidays category—yes, even we health coaches struggle with sugar!)

Crowding out

As a health coach, I like to start with the idea of “crowding out”—basically adding in more nutritious options with the goal of pushing the poorer choices away over time. What does that look like?

  • If you’re a fan of pop, drink a glass of water before you have the pop. (You may discover that you drink less pop or even find yourself skipping it altogether some or most of the time.)
  • If you’re a sweet treat addict, eat a piece of whole fruit or a sweet vegetable (sweet potatoes, carrots, beets) before your sweet snack.

This column comes out once a month—plenty of time to practice crowding out for the next four weeks or so! I’ll be back next month with a few more facts and suggestions!

(And it’s okay to have some Valentine’s Day candy—as long as you have some fruit first and keep the treat to one day…?)

WLAA health columnist Liza Baker is a health coach, cookbook author, blogger, podcaster, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice.