Humans have evolved to digest and utilize carbohydrates (or foods that convert into sugar in the body) as a form of energy. I believe that most people can eat carbohydrates, but the important point is which ones you eat as well as how much of them that you eat. Added sugar (or sucrose) is the form that you should take in the least. Although carbohydrates do convert into sugar, they bring a lot of other goodness to your diet such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and fiber, and this is not the case with added sugar.
As a definition, sugar is a simple carbohydrate that comes in many different forms. In its simplest form it is called a monosaccharide and includes:
Sucrose is a disaccharide (contains 2 monosaccharaides) made up of glucose and fructose. All carbohydrates, once eaten, are converted into sugar during digestion. It is the added sugar that gives no beneficial nutrients (just energy) and in excess can impact on weight and health. The World Health Organization guideline is that ‘added sugar’ should make up no more than 5-10% of our daily intake. However, with sugar being used in many of the processed foods these days it is easy to lose track of how much ‘added’ sugar you are eating in a day!
Understanding the Difference between Natural Sugar and Added Sugar
Food labels only contain information on total sugars per serving (‘of which sugars’), not added sugar. It therefore becomes almost impossible for us to work out how much added sugars are in the foods and drinks. This is where the ingredient list becomes important. The ingredients in a product are listed in order of weight. This means that the biggest (by weight) ingredient comes first on the list and the smallest ingredient is last. Therefore if sugar is listed in the top 3 ingredients then the ‘of which sugars’ is added sugar. If however the ‘of which sugars’ is high and the first ingredient is milk or fruit, then it is natural sugar in the product.
Beet sugar Fructose Mannitol
Brown sugar Galactose Maple sugar
Cane sugar Glucose Molasses
Corn sugar Honey Sorbitol
Corn syrup Invert sugar Sucrose
Dextrin Lactose White sugar
Which and How Much Carbohydrate?
It is the ‘which’ carbohydrate and ‘how much’ carbohydrate that is the most important part of any eating plan. It does not matter whether you choose to eat bread or fruit or yoghurt. It matters however that you choose the seed loaf or rye bread over the white bread, and it matters that you eat 1-2 slices of bread rather than 4-6!
Carbohydrates include milk, yoghurt, fruit, legumes, starchy veg, and grains
A unit of carbohydrate is 175ml yoghurt, 1 cup milk, a tennis ball size of fruit, or ½ cup cooked legumes, starchy veg or grain
The Glycaemic Index (GI) is a great tool to use when making your carbohydrate choices. This is a measure of how quickly (or slowly) the carbohydrates are digested and what impact they have on the blood sugar level. The lower GI, (and by default the higher fibre) carbohydrates are the ones that digest more slowly and therefore release their sugar into the blood more slowly resulting in more constant blood sugar levels. As a rule, I get clients to choose milk, yoghurt, fruit, legumes and whole grains mostly. Also important in the pursuit of controlled blood sugars is to eat lean protein and/or healthy plant fat with the healthy carbohydrates.
Blood sugar control is also dependent on how much carbohydrate you eat at each meal and snack. Logically it makes sense that if you eat a lot of food that converts into sugar, a lot of sugar will move into the blood – even if it is a low GI carbohydrate! Portion control therefore becomes a very important part of the equation. Generally about 1-3 units of carbohydrate can be eaten at each meal and snack. The number that you can eat depends on whether you are male or female, whether you are having snacks in between the meals and how active you are. For example, a female doing limited exercise can eat between 1 and 2 units of carbohydrates at each meal and snack and should aim at having about 7-9 units of carbohydrates per day. Within the carbohydrates you should of course be choosing about 2-3 servings of fruit and 1-2 servings of milk/yoghurt. To learn more about how to balance your carbohydrates (as well as proteins and fats) visit a dietician who can help you with this.
The bottom line is that you can utilize carbohydrates as an energy source. Carbohydrates are the foods that give you immediate energy and you ideally need this energy regularly during the day to keep your blood sugar levels and thereby your energy levels and appetite constant. Choose them wisely and enjoy them in small quantities. You will reap the benefits.