A Guide to SUGAR: Healthy vs. Unhealthy Sugars

For the past few weeks, I have been working on eliminating my (and my Mom’s) sugar cravings and love for the sweet stuff. For me, that meant limited fruit, dried fruit, dark chocolate, honey, nuts and seeds (nuts/seeds more so for skin and digestion). There is absolutely nothing ‘wrong’ with eating any of these real, wholesome foods but, for lack of a better word, I just felt like I needed a little sugar detox. Mama Honey Bee felt the same way and joined in.

We didn’t follow an official program but we focused our meals and snacks on animal protein, lots of vegetables and healthful fats – Whole 30 and 21 Day Sugar Detox-esque. I certainly wasn’t ‘perfect’ but it taught me how addictive even ‘good’ sugar can be and how powerful it is in providing emotional comfort. A very interesting experiment indeed.

But what’s the deal with sugar anyways? Is all sugar the same? Which sugar should we eat? Why do we crave sugar? Well there is tons of information to cover but I wanted to scratch the sugary surface in this post.

Sugar Explained Graphic

What is Sugar?

Sugar is an organic molecule that builds other compounds. In nutrition, we typically refer to sugar as carbohydrates.

Glucose, galactose and fructose are single sugar molecules (monosaccharides).

Lactose, sucrose and maltose are sugars that consist of two single sugar molecules bonded together (disaccharides).

 

Is all Sugar the same?

In principle, all sugar is technically the same: the glucose, fructose, and sucrose found in table sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are the same molecules as the glucose, fructose, and sucrose in honey, fruit, and starchy vegetables. But when it comes to the way our body uses these sugars, these foods are very different.

Added sweeteners and natural sweetness have completely different metabolic effects on our body. The fiber and water found in whole fruit and starchy vegetables increase satiety, which act like ‘food brakes’ telling our body to stop eating. Satiety occurs in the digestive tract: when our bodies digest and absorb enough nutrients for our needs, our hormones signal a feeling of nourishment to the brain, which decreases the desire for more food.

Added and processed sweeteners do the reverse – there are no brakes on these foods and is referred to as satiation. Satiation is regulated in the brain and is based upon our perceptions not a measurement of nutrients. When food is processed out of its original form, like high fructose corn syrup, the appetite regulating and filling potential is also processed right out of it too. Hormones like ghrelin and leptin are hindered and our regulation of these foods is off.

 

Why do we crave Sugar?

There are many reasons for our sugar cravings. Some cravings are a natural process of our bodies and lives but others may be because of nutrient deficiencies, body imbalances, stress and emotion.

Firstly, our hormones play a crucial role in controlling many metabolic processes – including our carbohydrate (sugar) metabolism. When the hormone cortisol is higher than normal levels, body rhythm is imbalanced. This imbalance causes sugar cravings to rebalances it with the release of serotonin. Serotonin has a calming and relaxing effect on our body. Sugar cravings are largely due to the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which sends a signal to our brain causing us to crave sugar. When we succumb to the craving, serotonin is released.

There is also a strong connection between food and emotion, causing happiness when we eat something comforting. Refined sugar foods increase the release of the hormone serotonin while fatty foods increase endorphin production, which also has a relaxing effect on the body.

 

Which Sugars Should We Avoid?

There are many sugars and sweeteners that have been chemically created by the food industry – all forms of Franken-Food. Firstly, our bodies are not able to process these new, man-made “foods”. As discussd, our appetite regulation is processed right out of them too. Because of this, it’s often easy to eat more than you need to – leading to weight gain and other health problems. Many processed sugars suppress our immune system function and are linked with digestive issues and gut sensitivity.

Unhealthy Sugars

Avoid these highly processed forms of sugar and sweeteners the majority of the time:

  • Corn syrup
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Sucrose (table sugar)
  • Dextrose
  • Aspartame
  • Sucralose
  • Saccharine

Please note: this is not an all conclusive list.

 

Which Sugars Should We Eat?

As with food, we should eat sugars in their truest and minimally processed form – and if it has vitamins, minerals and other compounds that helps nourish our bodies, then that’s an added bonus! A lot of research indicates that honey has unique and beneficial effects on our body; such as lowering LDL cholesterol and some antibacterial properties. See, I’m not the Little Honey Bee for nothing :) Depending on the quality you purchase, maple syrup and coconut palm sugar are minimally processed and contain minerals and phytonutrients. These sugars, and others, also have favorable chemical ratios, which can be important if you have digestive issues.

Healthy Sugars

Choose these natural, unprocessed options for a sweet treat:

  • Raw honey
  • Coconut palm sugar
  • Date sugar
  • Maple syrup (grade B)
  • Stevia
  • Unsweetened & unsulphured dried fruit
  • High quality dark chocolate (70% or higher)
  • Fruit: bananas, apples, pears, oranges, berries
  • Starchy vegetables: beets, potatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, parsnips

 

My Thoughts on Sugar & Treats

I have a sweet tooth. Always have and likely always will. I’ve obviously transitioned away from Twinkies and Oreos and now recognize the benefits of choosing real treats the majority of the time. Not only does it make me feel better, but I feel satisfied.

Now a little refined, “unhealthy” sugar from time to time? Well, pick and choose when feels right for you because the stress that comes with excessive food restriction is much more harmful than a little sugar. My favorites? Gimme a chocolate croissant and ice-cream!

But the rest of the time? Check out these delicious recipes for good-for-you sweet snacks and treats. 

 

Do you have a question about sugar? Leave it in the comments below! 

 

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17 thoughts on “A Guide to SUGAR: Healthy vs. Unhealthy Sugars

  1. This is really helpful! I feel like over the past few months I have started to learn a lot more about sugar, and for awhile now I’v only been using maple syrup, honey, and coconut sugar…other than the occasional treat:) I think the Whole30 has been good to really reduce any sugar cravings although Im still eat a few servings of fruit a day.

  2. Thanks for some explanations and recommendations – it is crazy how much our body responds to receiving sugar and continues to crave it! Date sugar sounds incredible and I will need to try that next time I run out of my coconut palm sugar (I always keep that + maple syrup + honey for treats!).

  3. I have a huge sweet tooth but have switched over to the “healthy” sugars. The only exception is when I’m baking for a cupcake customer!

  4. I was wondering if you could go a little more in depth about sugar and digestion? I have a seriously dysfunctional digestive system right now and need foods that are easy to digest and read that some forms of sugar could be easy on the system. Any thoughts? :)

    1. Hi Jordan, this is a tough one because it is very individualized and often is as a result of many factors. Typically most fruits, starchy veg and honey are well tolerated by most people but things do get a bit complicated. Feel free to email me if you’d like to go into more details and we can look into working together!

  5. I agree, I love these ‘guide to’ posts! Keep up the good work! A side blogger note, update your share buttons (at least Twitter) to include your handle. That way people can find you when we share!

  6. Sugar was one of those things I never used to give much thought to, back in my calorie counting days. Even still, I tend to crave more salty things than sweets, but its amazing to me how much added sugar sneaks into my day! This is an awesome guide :) Thanks for putting it together!

  7. Honey? You’ve got to be kidding me. It’s pure sugar, predominantly fructose. There are no proven health benefits worth mentioning. Having a few spoons of honey is the same as drinking a bottle of coke. I’m type 1 diabetic and have measured my blood sugars 10 times a day for 26 years and trust me, this is true. Also I LOVE honey. But it’s the purest, nastiest form of sugar there is. Please don’t classify it as healthy. Same for all the other sugars you’ve listed.

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