A Nutritional Therapist Explains Sugar

So, there’s a lot of buzz, hype, and confusion about eating sugar. Is it good? Bad? Am I overeating it?  Well, this post comes after much thought and years of research, reading, and also working with people who are looking to change their eating habits.  It’s easy to get confused about sugar, and truthfully, trying to get to the bottom of the truth about sugar, is enough to make you stress eat Skittles, am I right?  If you want to navigate your way through the (not so sweet) confusion when it comes to sugar and your diet, you need only to read on as a nutritional therapist explains sugar.  

via GIPHY

By now, it’s almost a broken record to hear about how sugar is the enemy, and it no doubt is public enemy number one in obesity (childhood and adult), heart disease, and diabetes.  The truth is, most people don’t know the difference between the various types of sugars in the foods they eat.

A sugar calorie, unrefined

Simple sugars are called monosaccharides and include glucose (also known as dextrose), fructose and galactose.

Monosaccharides are the simplest units of carbohydrates and the simplest form of sugar. They are the building blocks of more complex carbohydrates such as disaccharides and polysaccharides.  Some examples of monosaccharides are cane sugar, honey, agave, and molasses.

A disaccharide is a sugar composed of two monosaccharides and is formed when two sugars are joined, and a molecule of water is removed. For example, milk sugar (lactose) is made from glucose and galactose whereas cane sugar is made from glucose and fructose.

Polysaccharides are formed by three or more monosaccharides. An example of a polysaccharide is starch found in corn and potatoes.

To break sugar down even further we can talk about sugar called by many other names (and, yes, some taste just as sweet — some MUCH sweeter).

Glucose is a simple sugar or a monosaccharide because it is one of the smallest units which has the characteristics of this class of carbohydrates.  When oxidized in the body, (metabolism), glucose produces carbon dioxide, water, and some nitrogen compounds, and in the process provides energy which can be used by the cells.  In the human bloodstream glucose is referred to as “blood sugar.”

Fructose is sugar found in fruit and honey.  Used as a sweetener for soft drinks and processed food and is processed solely by the liver. Fructose, particularly in liquid form (outside of whole fruits and vegetable liquid form) is not to be confused with HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup).

Sucrose is a basic table sugar, also found in fresh fruit.  When sucrose is consumed, the enzyme beta-fructosidase separates sucrose into its individual sugar units of glucose and fructose. Both sugars are then taken up by their specific transport mechanisms.  The body will use glucose as its primary energy source and the excess energy from fructose, if not needed, will be poured into fat synthesis, which is stimulated by the insulin released in response to glucose.

Galactose is a monosaccharide commonly occurring in lactose. Also called brain sugar.

High Fructose Corn Syrup, also known as glucose-fructose syrup, is a combination of fructose and glucose made by processing corn syrup. Processing converts a portion of the corn syrup’s glucose into fructose to produce a desired sweetness. The resulting syrup is sweeter and more soluble. HFCS 55 (mostly used in processed foods) is approximately 55% fructose and 42% glucose.

Dextrose is another name for glucose and is often listed on processed foods (such as french fries and processed bread) as “natural sweeteners” and can be found in High Fructose Corn Syrup formulas.

Maltodextrin is a highly processed powdered sweetener derived from starch, resulting in a mixture of Glucose, Maltose, Oligosaccharides, and Polysaccharides. Maltodextrin can be found in many processed foods such as salad dressings and frozen foods.

Maltose is (aka Malt Sugar) starch and malt broke down (mashed) into simple sugars and regularly used in beer, cereals, bread, and baby food.

Stevia,also known as sweet leaf, sugar leaf, are dried and subjected to a water extraction process — 300 times sweeter than sugar with zero calories.

Sucralose (aka Splenda) is an artificial sweetener that is 600 times as sweet as table sugar, twice as sweet as saccharin, and 3.3 times as sweet as aspartame. Sucralose can be found in many low-carb and lower-sugar processed food products.

Sugar Alcohols, also known as polyols, derived from a plant sugar which is extracted by differing means, then reduced and then hydrogenated, then recrystallised. Sugar alcohols are neither sugar nor alcohol. However, they resemble their molecular structure. Sugar alcohols contain about 2.6 calories per gram, and they occur naturally in plant products such as fruits, berries, starches, seaweeds. Sugar alcohols will be listed as Mannitol, Sorbitol, Xylitol, and Maltitol.

Are you dizzy now?  That’s not even all the sweet substances out there, but these are the main culprits in most of the foods on the market today — especially processed foods.

Sugar:  Not good vs. bad, but better vs. worse.

When talking about the body’s metabolic processes, and the fact that we need glycogen in our body to move, breathe, and function; it can be challenging to think that eating something with sugar isn’t a good choice.

Also, sugar — by its very makeup — IS carbohydrate, which is something we need to produce and store glycogen for all of our essential body functions.

So, if we have to eat carbohydrates — including sugar — how can it be so “bad” for us??

In the description of sugar types posted above, you can see that fructose, a sugar found in honey and fruits, is processed solely by the liver.  But wait, the fruit is good for you, right?  Yes, the fruit is good for you.  Here’s the deal, eating an apple, as opposed to a teaspoon or two of table sugar, (sucrose – which is part fructose) is different.  But how?  When it comes to sugar calories, they are NOT all created equally.

About those sugar calories

Low carb, no carb, paleo, and IIFYM (just to name a few) are eating plans that discourage the consumption of refined sugar, and some of those plans even prohibit fruit due to its sugar content.

While I agree that when it comes to your overall health, sugar consumption is something to keep in check, however, it’s where you’re getting your sugar calories from that is an intricate part of your overall health.

Look, sugar is somewhat unavoidable — it is a naturally occurring ingredient.  One way you can break through the sugary confusion is to ask yourself this simple question — to this complicated question:   “In addition to the sugar in this item, what other benefits will I receive by choosing to eat this food?” If you can’t list any actual health benefits to consuming that food, it’s probably safe to say that it’s not the best form of sugar to be eating.  Let’s take a look at the two examples below.

1. Soda vs. Fresh Juice

I’ve heard this before, “If a glass of fruit juice is just as sugary and has as many calories as a can of soda, than I’m going to have the soda.”  While 12 ounces of soda and 12 ounces of juice are close in calories and sugar content, there is a significant difference between the two beverages and how they affect the body.

A can of soda has 140 calories, 39 grams of processed sugar (HFCS), and no fiber, so, therefore, it has ZERO health benefit.  Whereas, a glass of fresh fruit and vegetable juice has 177 calories, 32 grams of natural fructose sugar, 2 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein, vitamins A and C, Iron, calcium, and potassium.

2. Milk chocolate vs. Dark Chocolate

One ounce of milk chocolate has 38 calories, 2 grams of fat, 1 gram of saturated fat, 4 grams of sugar and no added vitamins, minerals or nutrients.  Dark chocolate also has 38 calories, 2 grams of fat, no saturated fat, and 4 grams of sugar, however, dark chocolate also contains antioxidants, potassium, magnesium, iron, and Vitamin B12.

Let’s summarize it all.

Sugar comes in a lot of different forms.  Some types of sugar come in the form of “empty calories” or “nutrient sparse” foods such as many processed foods, candy, soft drinks, and concentrated juices.   While eating sugar may seem unavoidable, you need to ask yourself which health benefits are closely associated with the sugar containing foods you’re about to eat.  If you can’t find a single vitamin, mineral, or nutrient in a sugary product in question– you won’t be missing out by giving IT a miss.  Antioxidants in fruits and vegetables are essential to our diet.  We need a balance of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes to fully absorb the nutrition in the foods we eat.  While it’s okay to enjoy an occasional chocolate bar, ice cream, and other sweets — they are not the best source of energy for our bodies.

While your tastebuds may struggle to know the difference between table sugar, and, say, sucralose, your body recognises the difference between foods with fibre, protein, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

If you get the best stuff to your plate, your body will do take care of the rest.

Hopefully, this has helped to clear up some of the confusion sugar causes for so many people. If you liked this post, check out some more of my eating psychology posts to learn more about how your relationship with food helps to form dietary choices.

4 SIGNS YOU MAY BE IN A TOXIC RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD

Ah, toxic relationships.  Chances are you’ve had a few of those or maybe your suspect you might be in the grips of one right now.

One relationship that many people struggle with is a toxic relationship with food, and it is easy to see why this happens.  Everybody has to eat to survive.

Most people, particularly women discuss food and weight at multiple points in any given conversation.  Talking about weight, diet and bodies is a part of our culture.

So, what makes a relationship with food toxic?

Have you ever wondered if the way you think, view and discuss food is affecting how much and what you eat?

Truthfully, many traits can help you determine if your relationship with food is toxic, but for this post, we will focus on four specific characteristics:

  • Blaming 
  • Lack of autonomy
  • Self-judgment
  • Bad feelings

four signs you may be in a toxic relationship with food _ erin's life bites

4 SIGNS YOU MAY BE IN A TOXIC RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD

Blaming

When we are young, it’s understandable that we would blame ourselves for the traumatic things that happen around us.  Self-blame is a way to make sense of things that quite frankly are not for us to explain or figure out.

You may be thinking; of course, you are going to blame yourself when you emotionally eat or feel out of control with your eating habits – you can’t blame the slice of pizza.

But we do blame the food, and by blaming the food, we give it an incredible amount of power (or “say”) in our ability to cope with stress and trauma.

“But if the food weren’t so delicious or comforting, I wouldn’t turn to it.  I mean, I’m hardly going to cram entire stems of broccoli florets into my mouth when I feel bad!”  Well, you might if you found broccoli comforting.   It’s not the food being too delicious or comforting that causes you to eat it when you’re upset.  It’s the need to shut off discomfort or to cope with a stressful situation.   The food isn’t going to fix anything, but if continuously turn to food in times of distress it sure might seem like you depend on it to do something it isn’t equipped to do.

Listen, there are way worse things, in my opinion, that a person can do when they are stressed or upset than eat something.  However, when eating something leads to eating something else and then another thing and turns into a manic cycle of feeling powerless and shameful while hitting up multiple drive-thrus, then your relationship with food is toxic.

Lack of autonomy 

Autonomy is a basic human need.  We need independence to feel that we can make the best choices for ourselves and our lives based on what we need without the influence or approval of others.

“I can’t eat that because I’m on a low carb diet.”

“I can’t have dairy because I’m paleo.”

If you choose not to eat carbs, that’s fine.  If you decide not to eat dairy, cool, but the thing is you can have carbs, dairy and sugar — unless you have an allergy or medical condition that prohibits you from consuming them safely.  If Sally, from accounting, lost 15 pounds and cured her irregular period by cutting sugar out of her diet, that means it is a suitable choice for Sally, but that doesn’t mean that you should try an elimination diet yourself.

Pursuing dietary “lifestyles” that restrict you or limit you because you believe that it will “fix your body” to eat a certain way or that you have to abstain from entire food groups to “eat right,” you could have a toxic relationship with food.

Judgment

A judgment is an opinion.   We live in a judgmental world.  People judge a book by its cover all of the time.  Is it right?  No.  Nine out of ten times the judgments we make are based on a very skewed and limited amount of information and are inconclusive at best.

We don’t reserve judgments for other people – we also judge things.  Food is always under scrutiny.  Some foods are bad.  Some foods are good.  Some foods are even labelled “super.”  The bottom line is they. Are. All. Just. Food.  

True, some foods are more nutritionally dense than others, but to believe that one food is terrible and another food is good is an arbitrary judgment that creates dysfunctional relationships with how we eat.  There are many reasons we consciously and subconsciously choose the foods that we eat when we decide to eat them and how we judge food has a significant impact on those choices.

Having a healthy and objective attitude towards food is #goals when it comes to your relationship with food.

Bad feelings

Counting celery sticks and not participating in events because you can’t be around the temptation of food is something many people do every damn day.  If the very prospect of being around food or being in an environment you can’t “control” causes you distress, you’re not alone.  So many people spend their days feeling wrong about the foods they choose to eat or not eat.  It is what happens to our thoughts and feelings after we eat that can show our actual relationship with food and our bodies.

“I’m a failure because I ate a cheeseburger,” this is a sentiment most people will think – if not say – to themselves when they decide to eat a particular food item.

Having bad feelings such as guilt, shame or anger after eating specific foods or quantities of food could mean that you have a toxic relationship with food.

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So, how do I manage my toxic relationship with food when I have to eat to survive?

Well, the first thing to establish is that it is not the food that is causing the toxic relationship, it is the associations and attitudes you have created surrounding eating as behaviour and the stigma you have assigned to particular foods.  Let me add, any shame attached to a specific food could have been designated by a parent, a friend, or just from society in general and is not necessarily an original association created by you.

The four signs you may have a toxic relationship with food – blaming, lack of autonomy, judgment and bad feelings – all come from how you have been conditioned to view food; as a coping mechanism.

Let me be clear:  I believe there are far worse things a person can do than eat a cupcake when they are sad, angry or stressed.  In those cases it is usually only in small quantities and when the individual has an established healthy attitude towards food.

However, eating as a coping mechanism – or as a response to an emotional trigger – is what leads the behaviour to have negative associations which over time can become harmful not only concerning physical health but mental health as well.

When food becomes an automated self-care method, or a mechanism to soothe stressors or trauma or is used as a reward system is when toxic emotional associations with food and how we eat start.

It is important to know that you are not alone.

Many people I have worked with over the years both as a personal trainer and nutritional therapist have communicated the same frustration when it comes to food and stress; they feel as though they have no control over their lives and the food is a way to distract themselves from the moment.

Some clients express feeling as though they had an ‘out of body’ experience where they feel in the moment that they are no longer in the driver’s seat of their life.

Other clients say that they know that what they are doing is “wrong”, but they feel like crap, so what’s the point in doing anything positive – it’s not like it matters at the moment.

Regardless of a client’s specific account of what they experience, the message is the same:  they are using the food to escape a discomfort.

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As a result of this association, the foods they consume while feeling upset, angry or out of control are branded as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ and exist as a response to an emotional or an environmental trigger.  At that moment, they need to pull the ‘escape hatch’ on reality and escape even if it is just until they reach the bottom of the chip packet.

Nobody deserves to be in discomfort or to experience crippling stress.  Every person deserves the opportunity to heal from trauma, and that is why recognising not only how we react to stressful situations but whether or not the way we cope with these situations is healthy and not causing secondary physical or mental health issues.

People are feeling much more comfortable these days discussing their struggles, and breaking through the stigma and shame that emotional eating and toxic relationships with food while giving you the tools to successfully manage stressors, anxiety, and emotions in a healthy and healing way.

Is your relationship with food healthy or toxic? Read my post on the four signs you could be in a toxic relationship with food. Click To Tweet

I offer clients one-on-one coaching programs to work through rebuilding their relationships with food, stress and help them find their way to the healthiest lifestyle specific to their needs and struggles.  Everybody is unique and has their history, and while signing up for my coaching emails and blog posts is a great start to rebuilding your confidence with food, some targeted work could help you better reach your goals.

If you are interested in working with me one-on-one, please email me at erin@erinslifebites.com and follow me on social media.

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