Nutrition / Food

Everything You Need to Know About Refined Sugars

Learn how refined sugars affect your health and how to avoid consuming too much of them in your diet.

When people start to follow a healthy diet, one of the first steps is to try to lower their sugar intake. Sugar comes in many forms—natural and refined. You’ve probably heard you should avoid refined sugars as much as possible. To help you better understand refined sugars and learn what to look for on a label, we talked to Megan Casper, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., dietitian and owner of NYC-based Nourished Bite Nutrition. Read on to find out how these sugars affect your health and how to keep them (mostly) out of your diet.

How does refined sugar differ from natural sugar?

Sugar is a carbohydrate, but there are different types of sugars you should pay attention to. First up, natural sugars. “Natural sugars are made up of carbohydrates, fructose, and glucose. [They] are used for energy, just like refined sugar,” Casper explains. A natural sugar becomes refined when it has been modified or processed.

“The main difference between natural and refined sugar is the packaging. Foods that contain natural sugar, like fruit, also are packed with fiber, which slows down the digestion of sugar,” Casper says. “They are also filled with other nutrients that improve your health, like water, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting phytonutrients. Dairy also contains the sugar lactose, but it is also high in protein, which slows down digestion.”

The American Heart Association claims that the average American consumes approximately 22.2 teaspoons of added sugar per day, which equates to 355 calories! This is quite alarming, considering that Casper says, “The American Heart Association suggests aiming for only six teaspoons, or 100 calories per day, for most women and no more than nine teaspoons, or 150 calories of added sugar a day, for most men.”

However, it isn’t just the extra calories that are a cause for concern. With this excessive consumption of sugar come additional health problems, such as metabolic abnormalities.

The Danger of Refined Sugars

Both refined and natural sugars provide energy. However, refined sugars don’t have the other healthy nutrients that natural sugars contain. This is why, according to Casper, they provide “empty calories with no nutritional benefit.”

Many foods and liquids that people typically consume in large quantities contain refined sugars. Casper says the obvious culprits are “soda, fruit juice, breakfast cereals, candy, cookies, cakes, and other desserts.” You should remain cautious of other items such as ketchup, bread, and pasta, as refined sugars may be hidden in them.

Casper warns that excessive amounts of refined sugars may lead to “weight gain, obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other health problems.” Have you ever experienced that infamous afternoon slump? Consuming too much refined sugar can cause this as well.

Refined sugars break down fairly quickly without fiber. Subsequently, insulin and blood sugar levels spike and then plummet just as fast. “This can cause energy levels to drop, making you feel sluggish and hungry,” Casper says. “Over time these quick changes in sugar levels can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes.”

How do I know if my food contains refined sugar?

The best way to identify the presence of refined sugar is to check the nutritional label and ingredients list. Try to avoid foods that list sugar in their top two ingredients. However, Casper says, “Here’s where things get tricky. … Some food manufacturers will list multiple forms of sugar on the list individually, making it harder to know the exact amount of added sugars.” Look out for these common added sugars as well:

The best way to know for sure that the food and beverages you consume have little to no refined sugar is to stick to whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible. Casper notes, “The FDA is currently working on adding a special line for ‘added sugars’ on the nutrition label.” There’s currently no set date for implementation, but it will make it easier for you to differentiate between the types of sugars.

So, should I completely give up refined sugars?

Contrary to belief, you don’t have to completely give up refined sugars. After all, some of the yummiest foods in life contain refined sugars. It can be hard to avoid them forever. By sticking to Casper’s tips and keeping tabs on how much you consume, you can still enjoy the little pleasures of life without risking your health.

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