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sugar, sweeteners, and hfcs: everything you need to know

“Having junk food in my house is an issue; if it's there, I'll eat it. If it's not, I'll still want it and be bummed that it isn't. I need to find healthier "junk" options, but are those actually any better?”

Last week a client asked me this question about sweets. She loves sweets (who doesn’t?!) but has always been under the impression that traditional sweets are “bad” and that lower sugar alternatives should be used instead. 

Is this true? 

In this post, I’ll demystify “sugar”, explain the different options for sweeteners, and help you understand which option may be best for you! 

Why “sugar” is more complicated than it seems.

As you know, I'm a firm believer in honoring your cravings and saying "see ya never" to food restrictions. That's exactly the mindset that allowed me to lose 20lbs, and it's what helps my clients overcome binge/restrict habits and lose weight, too! 

So, yes, I eat candy (and not always the healthy kind from Whole Foods).

But isn’t sugar toxic? Doesn’t it cause cancer and lead to fat storage and obesity? 

I think a lot of the reason you may be scared of sugar and/or pinpoint it as the ONLY culprit in your battle with weight loss is because you hear too much from the media about how many burpees = 1 mini snickers, and not enough about how sugar *actually* works in your body! 

The truth is, eating sugar from *ANY* digestible carbohydrate source (sugar, starch, grains, beans, dairy…) is going to eventually be broken down into the exact same thing. glucose.

Glucose is the molecule that causes your blood sugar to spike. 

  • Your blood sugar spiking leads to a rise in insulin.

  • Insulin helps take sugar from your blood and puts it into your cells (which is a good thing, you’d die if it weren’t for this). 

  • However - if you’re NOT going to be utilizing that sugar in your cells for energy and there is excess sugar floating around (i.e. if you accidentally ate 12 fun sized kit kats) then insulin will promote the excess sugar (glucose) to be stored as fat for later. 

This is why you hear insulin is the “fat storage” hormone. 

And also why you hear eating sugar leads to fat storage. 

But what is left out of that equation is the important detail that eating *too much* sugar leads to fat storage. 

The “sugar leads to fat storage” claim is not often fully explained.  

Having said that, yes - Americans consume too much sugar, but sugar alone is not the cause of health conditions or why you aren’t reaching your goals 

Increased sugar = increased calories. But those calories from sugar are no more likely to contribute to weight gain than excess calories from protein or fat. It is just *easier* for our body to convert the excess sugar to fat more quickly if we don’t need it!

Nutritive vs Non-Nutritive Sweeteners

Now that you understand how calories from all carbs work in our bodies, let’s dive into the calorie difference between different types of sugar.

This list of nutritive sweeteners contain carbs and provide energy (glucose) for our bodies to use:

  • Granulated “Table” Sugar

  • Cane Sugar

  • Turbinado“Sugar in the Raw”

  • Honey

  • Agave

  • Brown Sugar

  • Inverted Sugar

  • Sugar Alcohols

  • High Fructose Corn Syrup

The American Heart Association recommends limiting amount of added sugars (such as nutritive sweeteners listed above) to:

  • 6 tsp for women (100 calories per day, 25g) 

  • 10 tsp for men (150 calories per day, 38g)

Serving per serving, the calorie and macro breakdown of all of these is essentially the same.

So, from a fat loss perspective, swapping 1tsp sugar for 1tsp honey will not make a difference. The type of sugar (i.e. glucose, fructose, sucrose, etc.) that is found in each of these, as well as other vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients is what makes the difference!

Although it’s often demonized, high fructose corn syrup is simply corn syrup (majority glucose) that has been chemically altered to taste sweeter by converting some glucose to fructose. Despite the name “high-fructose,” HFCS actually has approximately the same ratio of fructose:glucose as table sugar or honey. HFCS is only “high” in fructose compared to the corn syrup from which it’s derived.

HFCS has the same amount of calories as sugar but is digested differently (referred to as “instant triose”, HFCS is rapidly metabolized in the liver). Yes, if consumed in excess, this process leads to increased fat synthesis and storage. However, studies comparing similar intake of HFCS and other nutritive sweeteners demonstrate it's not the type of sweetener, but the amount, that exerts metabolic effects. Furthermore, since the calories from all of these are about the same, HFCS does not uniquely contribute to weight gain.

My question to clients when they ask about zero calorie sweeteners is always “are you using enough sugar for it to make a difference?” 

Non-nutritive sweeteners are zero (or very low) calorie sweeteners that add sweetness and bulk to foods with less calories. They require little to no insulin to be metabolized and are popular among diabetics. The most common non-nutritive sweeteners are:

  • Aspartame

  • Sucralose

  • Saccharin

  • Stevia

These non-nutritive sweeteners do not necessarily count as "added sugars" in your diet.

In my opinion, learning portion control and good habits is the most important part of any sustainable diet. It’s not JUST the high fructose corn syrup (or sugar, or salt, or preservatives, etc. etc. etc.) that is the problem. It’s best to control total energy intake and increase physical activity to manage body weight.

I’m not opposed to any of the sweeteners we talked about! Again, how much are you using? If you’re only swapping one pack of sugar for 1 pack of stevia it doesn't make much of a difference calorically. Personally I'd rather have a teaspoon or two of traditional sugar and enjoy the taste than more of an alternative that isn't as satisfying. How about you? 

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