Sugar is Poison. Sugar is going to kill you. Sugar makes you fat.
Do these lines sound familiar? From books to TV shows to the Internet, we have heard it all. It seems that extreme messages such as these are what catches people’s attention. Perhaps it’s the wow-factor, or maybe it’s the simple idea that cutting out one thing from your diet will help you lose weight.
To be honest, though, cutting out an entire of group of foods is not that simple. And whether you are trying to lose weight or not, it’s usually not the best idea for your body and mind. There are frankly several more pieces to this nutrition puzzle.
In a word, no, sugar itself will not prevent weight or fat loss. In fact, sugar is glucose, and glucose happens to be the preferred energy source of our bodies. It also primarily comes from carbohydrates. We all need glucose for our organs to function properly, to have adequate energy, and yes — to burn fat.
Achieving a healthy weight involves a variety of factors, including a healthy diet, balanced exercise, adequate sleep, and stress management, so it’s hard to say that sugar is the one factor deterring your weight loss efforts. You can run into trouble when you eat more sugar than your body can use at one time – this is when weight or fat loss becomes impossible.
Glucose is stored as glycogen in your liver and muscles. However, glycogen storage is limited, and once its limits are exceeded (by eating more calories than your body needs) any extra glucose is stored as fat.
But it’s not just carbs that contribute to these fat stores—high protein and high fat foods eaten in excess will also prevent weight loss and eventually lead to weight gain.
All that being said, there are certain sugars — “added sugars” – that, when eaten in excess, can deter weight or fat loss efforts. Added sugars refer to any sugar or syrups added to foods during processing and preparation (including that syrup you add to your pancakes during breakfast), and tend to be found in nutrient-poor, high-calorie foods.
Foods and beverages with added sugars, like cakes, pastries and soda, most likely have very little nutritional value. Plus, they are typically low in soluble fiber, which is a nutrient that has been scientifically proven to aid in weight loss.
Not surprisingly, studies show that a high intake of added sugar is inversely associated with fiber intake. When cakes, cookies, jams and other foods with added sugars take up too much of the diet, it is difficult to fit in enough nutrient and fiber-rich foods (i.e. fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein, nuts) without exceeding a calorie range that’s appropriate for weight loss or maintenance.1
So, what is meant by the phrase, “in excess”?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that you consume less than 10 percent of your calories per day from added sugars. For example, if a person consumes around 2,000 calories per day, it is recommended that no more than 200 calories be from added sugars.
However, this recommendation is not given because the sugar itself causes weight gain.
For most people’s energy (calorie) needs, there are simply not enough calories available after meeting the recommended nutrient needs from whole food groups. In other words, if you’re trying to eat a healthy number of calories to maintain or lose weight, and also receive adequate nutrients, only a small part of your calories should come from added sugar.2
Naturally occurring sugars are those found in milk, cheese and unsweetened yogurt (lactose), and fruit (fructose). These sugars are not considered added sugars. While both lactose and fructose are types of sugar that are broken down into glucose, they are also full of disease-fighting nutrients and should not be avoided in an effort to achieve a healthy weight. In fact, the soluble fiber in fruit helps slow down the metabolism of sugar, providing a steady source of energy. Additionally, foods with natural sugars are naturally low in calories, fat and sodium.
Refined sugar, on the other hand, rapidly enters the blood stream causing your insulin and blood sugar levels to spike (hence the term “sugar high,” often followed by a crash).
However, it is important to remember that serving sizes are still important when it comes to foods with naturally occurring sugars, especially when trying to achieve a healthy weight or fat loss. To meet nutrient needs, men should aim for about 2 cups of fruit per day, while women should shoot for 1.5 to 2 cups per day.* When eating whole fruits, “one cup” includes a large banana, one medium grapefruit, or one small apple.3
For other foods with naturally-occurring sugars like milk and yogurt, it is recommended that both men and women consume about 3 cups per day to receive adequate calcium, vitamin D and potassium. For cheese, one serving of hard cheeses (i.e. cheddar cheese) is 1.5 ounces, and a serving of cottage cheese and ricotta cheese is 2 cups and ½ cup, respectively. Dairy is also a source of protein, which helps keep you feeling fuller longer, and can aid in weight loss efforts.
But, be mindful of any added sugars lurking in your morning yogurt. Instead of buying fruit-flavored yogurts, opt for plain and add berries or sliced banana on top.4
*It’s important to note that these recommendations are for individuals who get less than 30 minutes of exercise per day, and those who are more physically active may be able to consume more and stay within calorie limits.
Foods with added sugars or refined sugars, such as soft drinks, candy, commercial cakes, cookies and pies, jellies, syrup and fruit drinks, are the primary foods to limit on a daily basis. These foods often come packed with unhealthy fats and lots of “empty calories”, or calories that offer no nutritional benefit.
Even though your body doesn’t know the difference between glucose from an apple with 80 calories, or 80 calories worth of gummy worms, these foods are digested differently.
The apple is full of fiber as well as many other disease-fighting nutrients that slow down metabolism of the fruit and creates a feeling of satiety, which can aid in weight loss.
The gummy worms are made with refined sugars that go directly into the bloodstream and do not create a feeling of fullness. Plus, gummy worms certainly do not deliver the vitamins C and E that apples do.5
In America, sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda, fruit drinks, alcoholic beverages and sports drinks, are the primary sources of added sugar. And studies show that consumption of these drinks is directly related to weight gain.6
Studies also show that swapping at least 2 servings per day of sugar-sweetened beverages for water (or another non-caloric drinks) can significantly help with weight or fat loss. Plus, sugary drinks are less filling than whole foods with natural sugars like fruit, and therefore can lead to intake of more calories throughout the day.7
Fortunately, the Nutrition Facts label has been updated to include information about added sugars in grams and as a percent of Daily Value. This will make it much easier to understand exactly how much sugar has been added to a product, and to decide if it fits into your diet. Here’s helpful tip to remember when perusing labels at the grocery store:
If a food has no fruit or milk products in the list of ingredients, all of the food’s sugar is from added sugars.
Oftentimes, added sugars can be disguised on the ingredients label of your packaged foods, like yogurt, granola bars, and cereal. The next time you’re at the store, look for these ingredients on your food labels to identify added sugars:
|anhydrous dextrose||brown sugar||cane sugar|
|corn syrup||corn syrup solids||dextrose|
|fructose||high-fructose corn syrup||honey|
|invert sugar||lactose||malt syrup|
|sugar||white granulated sugar||agave nectar89|
Keep in mind that honey is absorbed and used for energy in a very similar way as granulated sugar, and is therefore considered an added sugar.
Long story short: It boils down to how much and which kinds of sugars you eat. When you are reducing calories to lose weight or fat, reducing the amount of added and refined sugars you eat is a great place to start. This will help you make sure that you’re eating enough nutrient-dense foods, and avoiding the development of nutrient deficiencies and chronic diseases. It’s also wise to work with a nutrition expert like a registered dietitian to create a mentally and physically safe, and effective weight loss or fat loss plan.
However, it’s important to remember that all foods can fit into a balanced diet. Severely restricting or eliminating your favorite foods (with sugar or not!) can often lead to other issues like preoccupation with food, binge eating and other disordered eating behaviors. In everyday life, enjoy natural sugars in fruits, veggies, and milk products in the right portions, and when you want the occasional piece of chocolate cake at your friend’s birthday, go for it! Enjoy it, savor it and be mindful to balance it out with the rest of your day’s intake.
*Note: Sugar intake must be more closely monitored for anyone with Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes, and this article should not serve as a substitute for nutritional guidance or counseling on carbohydrate intake from a diabetes specialist.