Is Sugar Bad?

By October 31, 2012

I want to find a healthy alternative to sugar. Is it honey, fructose? I have been avoiding products with Splenda and other artificial sweeteners. Is sugar bad because it has been processed? – L.

Dear L.,

Thanks for writing and asking a question that interests a lot of people. There are many misconceptions about sugars and sweeteners, which I will do my best to clarify.

Without a doubt, Americans are consuming way too many processed foods, including those that contain refined sugars. That said, sugar in itself is not evil; small amounts of sweets in moderation can still be part of a healthy diet. When we start categorizing foods as “good” versus “bad,” we set ourselves up for food obsessions and cycles of deprivation, craving and bingeing. Check out the resource “A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Weight” for a balanced perspective.

When we talk about sugar, most people think of table sugar, but it is just one of several sugars referred to as simple carbohydrates, because they tend to be digested and absorbed quickly. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates such as starches and fiber are structurally more intricate; they are digested and absorbed more slowly, theoretically giving you more holdover power until the next meal. However, the way simple and complex carbohydrates affect blood sugar and possibly weight gain is more complicated. To learn more about the “glycemic effect” of foods, you can read the article “The Truth about Carbs.”

Of course, table sugar doesn’t provide much nutrition outside of calories. It is composed of two units (disaccharides) called glucose and fructose. Honey is also a mixture of fructose and glucose. If you enjoy honey as a sweetener, it is fine to use, but ounce for ounce it has about the same nutrient content (including calories) as table sugar. By the way, brown sugar is simply sugar crystals with added molasses.

Regarding other sweeteners such as Splenda, check out the article, “Sugar Substitutes – Are They Okay?” Like many nutritionists, I prefer small amounts of regular sugar or honey, but most experts consider moderate amounts of artificial sweeteners to be safe, so they are fine if you enjoy them. If you are prone to bingeing, however, and find sweets to be triggering, please read “Eating Treat Foods Without Guilt.”

I’ve given you a lot of homework, so feel free to write back if you have more questions after reading the articles! I’m glad you are making efforts to eat healthfully.

My best to you,