Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

The sweet and lowdown on sugary foods

Is your sugar consumption healthy?

A bowl of cereal for breakfast, sweetener in your coffee, followed by a co-worker’s birthday celebration. Then it’s a snack after work, store-bought pasta sauce at dinner. It sounds like a delicious day, but it could be a sugary trap.

“Sugar itself is not terrible for us,” says NAIT’s registered dietitian Nick Creelman. “It’s the amount that we’re eating that can be bad.”

“When we’re having pure sugar, we have an insulin reaction."

We need sugar for energy, but people tend to overdo it or choose the wrong sources, he says. The recommended amount of added sugar per day is 50 grams or less for the average person, which is 12 teaspoons – or 12 sugar cubes.

“When we’re having pure sugar, we have an insulin reaction,” Creelman says.

Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas that keeps the body’s blood sugar levels from rising too high or low. Consuming too much sugar can lead to fatigue and reduce insulin’s effectiveness, he says.

Research has also shown that sugar causes a spike in dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is one of the neurochemicals of happiness, which explains why biting into a sweet treat gives you pleasure. When you eat too much sugar, the brain gets overstimulated and becomes tolerant to the sweet stuff, so you crave more.

“Sugar doesn’t need to be seen as a demon all the time,” Creelman says. Here’s are some facts and tips for consuming the sweet stuff.

Added vs. natural

When you eat an apple, you’re eating natural sugar. That’s fine, Creelman says. Natural sugars found in fruit don’t count toward the 50-gram daily limit. Fruit also contains fibre that slows the release of natural sugars into the bloodstream and reduces the insulin reaction. You won’t have the same sugar crash from a piece of fruit than you would from a chocolate bar, he says.

“Fruit juice is pure sugar.”

That isn't the case with fruit juice, which has no fibre (it's removed through the juicing process) to protect your body against a sugar crash. It might contain vitamins and minerals but as far as your body is concerned, fruit juice is little different than soda.

“Fruit juice is pure sugar,” Creelman says.

Soda has no nutritional value, protein or fibre to slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream, so you’re likely to feel a huge crash after drinking it. If you’re hooked on soda, Creelman advises weaning yourself off first with fruit juice and then water. If you must drink a soda, at least have it with a meal to reduce the spike in blood sugar.

Sugary breakfasts

Breakfast is usually a carbohydrate-heavy meal, and that’s a problem, Creelman says. Some carbs are great, but for a lot of people breakfast is just a bowl of cereal, a piece of toast or yogurt and granola. There’s not a lot of protein to slow the release of sugar.

“The average cereal has eight to 15 grams of sugar in a cup,” he says. “Most people don’t just eat one cup of cereal for breakfast.” He recommends mixing cereals – add something with fibre to get more out of the meal and help feel full. But moving to just fibrous cereal is better.

Avoid store-bought granolas. Creelman says they can have 20 to 30 grams of sugar per cup. You’re much better off to make your own with nuts and seeds.

The best pairing for granola is yogurt, he says, as dairy products have naturally occurring sugar called lactose. But as soon as you start reaching for flavoured varieties, you’re wading into sugary territory. Pureed or syrupy fruit can spike sugar levels quickly. Creelman suggests using plain Greek yogurt for the extra protein. If you want sweetness, add a teaspoon of honey. That’s still sugary, but far less than what’s in flavoured yogurt.

Sweeteners

There are many ways to sweeten coffee or tea – honey, stevia, agave. They add some minerals, but to your body, sugar is sugar, Creelman says.

“You’re not making health differences there. They’re all going to have a caloric punch.”

On the flip side, artificial sweeteners have no calories but the long-term impact is still up for debate. One point that isn’t? 

“Sweeteners are so much sweeter than actual sugar. When you eat actual sugar [after using sweeteners], you’re eating more to get that level of sweetness.”

Pasta sauce, ketchup and smoothies – oh my!

Do you buy  pasta sauces, ketchup or barbecue sauces? Those are some of the items with the most added sugar – about five grams per tablespoon, says Creelman.

Smoothies might seem like a tasty breakfast or snack, but check the ingredients if buying from a restaurant, Creelman says. Too many servings of fruit, flavoured (and low-protein) yogurt can add 40 to 60 grams of sugar, Creelman says.

“Your body doesn’t need that much at one time.”

If you make a smoothie at home, aim for one to two servings of fruit, Creelman says, and think about adding veggies like spinach, kale, carrots or cucumbers. If adding liquids, he recommends using water or milk instead of juice.


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