5 Facts a Registered Dietitian Wants You To Know About Sugar

Picture this…

It’s 8 pm and you’ve just sat down from a long day of work and let’s just say, it’s been a “day”. 

It’s been one of those days where you want to bury your head in a tub of Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food and not look up until you hit the bottom.

On days like these, you’d prefer to pump yourself full of your favorite sweets that make those taste buds feel great, but your body not so much. 

The first few minutes of this indulgence creates a sugar high, but quickly your mounting energy and mood catapults to the floor as you crash back down. Soon you’re in an even worse mood, devoid of energy, and stress is starting to set in from the choice you just made.

You’ve just experienced a sugary episode of cravings and I’m here to tell you, I’ve been there before! 

The simple facts about sugar…

Here’s the thing—most people understand that higher sugar diets can lead to negative long-term health consequences, including increasing risk of obesity, diabetes, and inflammation, but many people are unaware of the subtle, yet powerful effects it has on your day-to-day life and general health. 

Listen to this—within an hour of consuming minimal to moderate amounts of sugar there can be a steady decline in energy and alertness, an increase in depression, and even changes to your digestion, like feeling bloated or gassy 

Not fun, right?

So does that mean that you have to avoid sugar 100% of the time? 

That answer’s not so black and white. Before you go cutting out every bit of sugar, it’s important to understand what effects different types and amounts of sugar have on your body. 

How much sugar is too much sugar?  

Anything upwards of 10% of your daily calorie intake is probably too much. For example, if you are eating around 1500-1800 calories a day, your diet should contain less than 150-180 calories from sugar (or in grams, this would be roughly 37-45 grams or less).

That may still seem a bit high, but if you are following the motto of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, eating one apple alone adds 19 grams of sugar to your day. 

Now that doesn’t mean fruit is a “bad choice” when you are craving something sweet, but it does mean that sugar consumption can add up quickly! 

If you’re going to cut these sugary craving episodes out of your days, you need to understand how sugar works, the impact it makes on your hormones, and how you can be more strategic about your consumption of it.

Luckily, I partnered with my friend and Registered Dietitian, Stacy Frattinger, to tell you about 5 different sugar facts you need to know!

Let’s jump right in…

1. What’s the difference between natural sugar and added sugar?

The sugar industry does a great job of selling the idea that sugar is an entirely “natural food”—this is simply false. 

When you eat apples, berries, or other fruits, you are eating the form of sugar known as fructose, which is its natural state. When you eat fruit that contains fructose, you are also adding micronutrients and fiber to the equation, which helps to slow down the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. 

Compare fruit to the fructose found in processed food and beverages, which often comes from corn, beets, or sugar cane—these processed foods are almost always stripped of fiber and nutrients, causing a heartier dose of fructose to be absorbed rapidly into your bloodstream.

Knowing which kind of fructose is the good kind and bad can get confusing, so check out this list of 56+ names you may see on the back of food labels or other nutrition markings instead of “sugar”. 

2. What are the most important hormones used for processing sugar?

Insulin and glucagon are 2 highly important hormones used for processing sugar. They help to regulate your blood sugar, also known as your blood glucose level. 

Glucose is the byproduct of sugar that runs through your bloodstream, and it can help to fuel various parts of your body along with your brain. 

There are also cells found within your liver and muscle that can store excess glucose as a substance known as glycogen. Glycogen stores can be used for fuel between meals and as part of an extended fast.

These two hormones (insulin and glucagon) work together to keep your body stable throughout the day and filled with fuel, thus when you take in high levels of natural or processed sugar, you start to see your body react differently such as mood swings or energy drops. 

3. What happens in the body when we have too much sugar?

Consuming high amounts (more than your daily recommendation) of processed sugars, including non-naturally occurring fructose, can dampen your body’s response to the brain hormone, leptin. Leptin is a natural appetite suppressant, and without your body responding to leptin appropriately, you may feel hungry more often or have sugar cravings sky rocket. 

When continued over time, one can experience “leptin resistance”, meaning your body doesn’t get the message to stop eating, even when you feel full. This leads to more grazing or eating larger meals than you need to feel fully satisfied. 

Guess what happens as a result? Weight gain. 

Not only that, but research continues to point to the fact that highly processed sugar also plays a major role in dopamine levels. 

According to brain scans, fructose directly affects dopamine—the chemical messenger center that helps to control how we experience reward and pleasure. These studies even show that having a high sugar intake can create changes in the brain similar to drug and alcohol addicts.

4. What are the adverse effects of excess sugar in your diet?

There are alot of things that happen when sugar is at the top of your personal food chain.

Short term effects

Off the cuff, you experience a decline in energy, mood, and motivation. This affects your day-to-day living and desire to accomplish the goals you set for each day, week, or even month.

Don’t forget—a lot of this sugar gets consumed in your beverages! When you grab yourself an extra large sweet tea from Chick-Fil-A or a double venti from Starbucks, you’re sucking down a major amount of your daily sugar intake and it doesn’t even feel like it! Then you go on to consume sugar in your meal and quickly you find yourself way over your daily limit. 

Long term effects

When you keep this habit up over time, you become more at risk for major health concerns or diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease

Consumption of excess sugar raises blood pressure and increases the risk of chronic inflammation, both of which impact the development of heart disease. This consumption also leads to excess weight gain, which is always no fun. 

Once you find yourself in the overweight or obese category, you are also more at risk for the development of diabetes as well. 

5. What can be done with nutrition, movement, exercise, rest, and self-care to offset sugar’s adverse effects?

A healthy diet full of anti-inflammatory food sources, plenty of leisurely movement, regular physical activity, appropriate rest and sleep, and regular acts of self-care can all help to offset the adverse effects of sugar consumption.

Nutrition

In regard to nutrition, I encourage my clients to have a snack or mini-meal of slow-digesting protein and fiber before adding in a sweet treat. This can help to slow down the rate of absorption of carbohydrates into your bloodstream, stabilizing your blood sugar rather than having that sugar rush and crash when you eat a higher-sugar food on its own.

Try grabbing yourself a slice of turkey breast wrapped in lettuce before you pop that mini Snickers in your mouth next time you’re craving. 

Movement 

If you are feeling stressed out, take a leisurely walk for added movement or get in some gentle exercise, like a yoga class. If you enjoy throwing heavy weights around or going for a run, more intense exercise can also help your body to utilize the simple carbohydrates for energy rather than immediately shuttling those calories into fat cells.

Remember to give yourself adequate rest and recovery after your activity so your body can recover and reset before you start moving it again. 

Self Care

If you are feeling burdened by your thoughts or your mood starting to sink, you can redirect your thoughts and energy into some forms of self-care that you enjoy. Try painting your nails, taking a hot bath, spending time with your family outside, or putting some prayer time on your schedule. 

I personally find that 20 minutes with God tends to help me reset and remind myself of the things that are truly important to me. It helps me stay present and gracious at the times when my mind starts to wander into tough situations. 

You can have some sugar and spice, and still feel nice! 

Knowing how sugar affects the body is important in understanding how we consume it. Managing the intake of both natural and processed sugars is something that won’t come overnight, but through daily and weekly practice.

I can promise you—once you have it dialed in, you’ll begin to notice a whole new mood and motivation that you never knew was inside of you. 

And on those days when you give into that sugary craving, give yourself some grace—we’re all simply human! 

If you’ve got more questions about sugar and how you can get the proper amounts in your diet, let’s hop on a ZOOM call and I can walk you through some basic practices I use with all my clients to manage sugar intake. 

If you’re looking for something a little more in-depth, join my RESTORE Program! It’s an 8-week metabolic restoration program that focuses on whole food nutrition, self-care, exercise, rest, movement, and mindfulness. We’re kicking off a new session soon and would love to have you there!

About Stacy Frattinger:

Stacy Frattinger is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Integrative Health Coach, Certified Holistic Nutritionist, and a National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach