How much sugar is safe?
How much sugar is safe? It kind of depends on what kind of sugar we are talking about. Are we talking about naturally occurring sugars (fructose), such as in fruit? Research on fruit is pretty explicit that fruit provides wide ranging health benefits. That being said, everybody’s body responds to fructose differently. Some people can eats fruits and high-sugar veggies (carrots) all day long with no trouble, and other people have to be more careful.
On the other hand, added sugars are – bar none – the worst single ingredient in our diets (artificial sweeteners included). The answer you don’t want to hear is: the least amount of added sugar/sweetener is the safest.
The American Heart Association recommends the MAXIMUM values of added sugar consumption at 5% of total daily calories or less (World Health Organization), which translates to:
- 36 grams for men
- 25 grams for women
Sorry folks, that one can of pop is more than this. We suggest that you even be wary of approaching these numbers. The basic fact is that sugar has absolutely 0 health benefits – it only has the capacity to harm. The prevailing wisdom remains: eat as little added sugar as possible. There are no shortcuts, hacks, work-arounds, or secrets when it comes to sugar. Sorry. It’s a major bummer, we know.
It’s also important to point out that even if you are very active, working out, sweating, etc., you still don’t need sugar. We’re talking about very high sugar items like sports drinks. Any sugar (i.e., glucose = energy) burned while working out will be naturally replaced with sugar that is acquired through natural digestive processes.
Calories aren’t created equal: carb vs. fat calories, and how they’re digested
The historical standard in the nutrition industry has been to take the fat out of a product (i.e., “low fat”) and substitute sugar, as sugar is less calories than fat:
- 1 gram of carbohydrate (which breaks down directly into glucose sugar) is 4 calories
- 1 gram of fat is 9 calories
So instead of your regular yogurt being 300 calories, it’s 180 calories. While that looks great on the surface, it doesn’t tell the real story: your body processes fat and carbohydrates (sugar) differently.
Fats are digested slowly, providing a consistent, sustained form of energy. They are essential for properly digesting fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), as well as using protein (yes, steak without fat doesn’t help much in the protein department). Fats also triggers bodies satiation mechanism, which means you get full when eating fats.
Of course, all fats are not created equal – what we are talking about are natural, generally monounsaturated (1 molecule) fats. Saturated fats should be eaten in moderation (though contrary to popular belief, saturated fats are not “bad”).
In the case of glucose, it goes straight to your bloodstream, causing blood sugar levels to rise and subsequent release of insulin to deal with the glucose.
Now listen closely: insulin helps our cells convert glucose into energy AND fat. With diets that prescribe to the “standard” carb/sugar-heavy intake, insulin tends to act mostly as a fat storage hormone. See Journey of Glucose. Here’s why:
- Insulin converts some glucose into glycogen (long term-energy) and stores it in cells for energy.
- Insulin transfers all extra glucose not used in cells to the liver.
- Most people can only store a small amount of glycogen in their livers: about 50-120g (200-480 calories) for 1-2 days (Metabolic Regulation – A Human Perspective by Keith N) – that’s less than one pizza.
- When glycogen stores in the liver become full, the liver converts all extra glycogen into triglycerides (fat).
High carb/sugar consumption (breads, added sugars, other starchy foods with high glycemic loads) floods your body with glucose, and insulin transports most of it to your liver where, in turn, most of that is turned into triglycerides. (unless you are expending a lot of energy, i.e. athletes).
This is why people who switch from grain based diets to fat diets usually see weight begin to fall off, not to mention the benefits of reducing carbohydrates in your diet.
Added fructose is harmful as well, as it is metabolized entirely in the liver. A small amount of this fructose will be stored as glycogen, but most will be processed as a by-product, including VLDL (a nasty form of very fatty cholesterol), hepatic triacylglycerol (causes insulin resistance), and so on. These by products are universally terrible for our health.
The primary difference between natural vs added fructose is that our bodies can handle natural fructose (in fruit). Such fructose is encased in plant proteins and fiber that are digested slowly, and our liver can keep up with metabolizing the fructose. Added fructose is just too much fructose at one time for your liver to deal with.