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Understanding the Difference Between Healthy and Harmful Sugars

May 24, 2023
4 min read

There's a lot of confusion around sugar, and it's often spotlighted within the media by health gurus and dieticians warning us off eating it. We all know that we should avoid adding white sugar to coffee, or (shock) try not to eat excessive amounts of chocolate and cake, but what about fruit and dairy – aren’t they high in sugar too? 

Here we take a look at the difference between harmful and healthy sugars, and pinpoint the vital differences you should look out for when choosing which to consume, or not to consume.

What is sugar, anyway?

Carbohydrates are the body's preferred energy source, and they can be either simple or complex in their structure. This often refers to how short or long the sugar molecules are; as a general rule, the shorteer the molecule the simpler the sugar, and vice versa.

Simple carbohydrates are quickly digested and used for immediate energy, whilst complex carbohydrates take longer to break down and are good for sustained energy release. 

All sugar is a form of carbohydrate, but the difference in its health benefits lies in the rest of the food's composition. Refined or processed sugars come from stripping other ingredients from food until pure sugar is all that remains.

Fruits, grains, dairy and some vegetables also contain sugars, but they remain in their natural form where they are accompanied by other nutrients such as fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. 

Due to their more complex structure, these sugars take longer to be broken down and used as fuel by the body. The longer your body takes to digest a food, the less it will spike your blood sugar levels and the slower it will release energy. 

The importance of fibre

Whole foods which contain naturally occurring sugars, such as fruit, are also typically rich in fibre. Fibre slows down sugar absorption and lessens the impact on your blood sugar levels.

Fruit is a great whole-food sugar source, as it’s sweet enough to satisfy cravings, typically low in calories and rich in essential nutrients.

Fibre is also good for your gut, as it helps keep the colon healthy and aids digestion to keep you regular. Also, choosing whole foods as opposed to processed foods with added sugar helps to keep you fuller for longer, which can help to stave off sugar cravings as a hunger response. 

Refined sugar vs natural sugar

Unfortunately, although delicious, too much processed sugar in our diets can contribute to a range of health problems.

High cholesterol levels are one of the main concerns for people who eat a lot of refined sugar and highly processed food, as these foods contain high levels of sugar, salt and fat, plenty of calories and little nutritional value. 

As far your body is concerned, pure sugar is pure sugar. Whether you add natural sugar such as honey, or refined, granulated sugar to your oatmeal – ultimately your body will react much the same.

Naturally sweet whole foods are a far healthier option – opting for a handful of blueberries or raspberries to sweeten your oats offers not only sweetness, but also fibre, vitamins and antioxidants to your meal. In comparison, pure sugar has no nutritional value and should be consumed in moderation.

Everything in moderation

Of course, we aren't saying you can never eat chocolate or sweets again, but it’s important to be mindful of how much sugar we consume to protect our health.

Choosing whole foods that offer multiple benefits in the form of fibre and nutrients, most of the time, will go a long way to helping you stay healthy and avoid health complications as a result of excessive sugar consumption. 

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