Every good story must have a great villain. In the story of health, we’ve got two. The greatest “villainized” foods of our day are fat and… yes, sugar and carbohydrates.
For now, let’s take a look at the thing we all hate to love, sugar/carbohydrates.
As with all villains, the story of sugar is somewhat complicated. Initially, carbohydrates were seen as the greatest and most important energy-providing nutrients in our diets (as well as the major supplier of fibre and many micronutrients).
This then deteriorated to the current low-carb obsession. You may have also picked up that the words ‘sugar’ and ‘carbohydrates’ are often used interchangeably, and that is because all carbohydrates are sugar at their core (which is largely why they have been given a bad rap).
The Sugar Family Tree
In order to understand the differences between the various types of carbohydrates (including sugar), it helps to have a basic understanding of the carbohydrate family tree. Bear with us for a brief science lesson if you are interested, or feel free to skip ahead to the next section!
The sugars described below aren’t the only sugars in existence, but they are the important ones when it comes to nutrition.
There are three important “mother sugars”, which are built from different combinations of the sugar building blocks (called monosaccharides). You’ve probably heard the names of the first two before: glucose and fructose. The third, slightly less known, is galactose.
Of these, glucose is the most important. Anytime we speak about sugar in your blood or sugar feeding your brain, that is glucose (although your body has some nifty ways to make glucose from other things when it needs to).
Fructose is the sweetest of the three; it’s the primary sugar found in nature’s sweetest foods, fruit. Galactose is really only important for its role in milk sugar, or lactose. It has one job to do, and does it well.
When two of these “mother sugars” decide to join up together, they create a new paired sugar. There are two important sugar pairs (or disaccharides) to know: sucrose and lactose.
Sucrose is what we generally call “sugar” (the white stuff you can buy in a bag at the shops). It is made up of one glucose-sugar plus one fructose-sugar. This makes it just the right amount of sweet to be loved but still practical enough to give you a bit of energy.
The trouble with sucrose or “table sugar” is that other than energy, it’s got nothing to offer. Pure, plain sugar (white or brown) is the epitome of empty calories; it has all the energy (and weight gain potential) with none of the nutritional value. So, although it will give you energy, the energy really isn’t worth your while. Plus, a high sugar intake has been linked to many diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer.
“Mother sugars” can join up in groups far bigger than just pairs. Complex carbohydrates are made up of many “mother sugars” all joined up together. These can be joined in intricate patterns and structures, making new substances altogether. The importance of this complexity lies in the fact that the glucose becomes harder and harder for your body to get at.
Complex carbohydrates are more difficult to break down, and certain components can’t be broken down for energy at all. While simple sugars (mother sugars alone or in pairs) are easy to get sugar from (as glucose directly or in the form of the other sugars which can be turned into glucose); for complex carbohydrates, this process is a lot more difficult, making them healthier as they contain less sugar that you can actually use. Plus, complex carbohydrates are excellent vessels for other essential components of your diet, such as fibre and many vitamins and minerals.
Part of what made sugar seem “good” is that it gives you so much more efficient energy; in fact, almost all of it is pure energy. This is also exactly how it is able to feed the obesity epidemic sweeping the globe and lead to diabetes, cancer and other health problems.
More and more, we are realising that a good diet doesn’t need any sugar at all but should focus instead on sources of carbohydrates in more complex forms that are less energy-dense but more nutrient-dense.
So, What Does This All Mean Practically?
- Try and avoid pure sugar or anything that resembles pure sugar (sweets, sugary drinks, chocolate, most desserts… all the good stuff). In reality, total avoidance is not always practical, so the best approach is to control how much and how often you consume sugary foods. Get into the habit of reading food labels to pick products lower in sugar. Each 4g of sugar on a food label is 1tsp of sugar in reality.
- Avoid all sugar that you drink (this type of sugar is worse for you than that which is eaten). Don’t drink sugar-sweetened beverages, including cool-drinks / juice concentrate. Fruit juice (even 100% fruit juice) is also a high-sugar beverage and is not as “healthy” as you may like to believe. It is damaging to your health as well as your teeth.
- Fruits and vegetables are perhaps the best carbohydrates you can get and contain so much of the goodness we need in our diet each day. You should try and consume 5 servings of fruit and vegetables each day. Now, before you get concerned, these 5 servings don’t need to be of different types of fruit and vegetables (although the more variety, the better); the ‘5’ refers to the amount. One portion of fruit is one small fruit, or 1/2 cup of fruit chopped (in general), while one serving of vegetables is 1 cup raw vegetable or 1/2 cup cooked.
- Use dairy as a source of carbohydrates in your diet. Generally, this refers to milk and yoghurt (as cheese contains more protein and fat than carbohydrate). Ideally, you should be aiming to get in 2 portions of dairy each day, where one portion is 1 cup of milk / 200g yoghurt (2 small tubs).
- Starches are a great source of energy and fibre in your diet, but they must be consumed in moderation (in appropriate portion sizes) and as low GI sources. In general, 1/2 cup cooked starch/cereal or 1 slice of bread is one portion (unless you are eating rice which is 1/3 cup, not 1/2 cup). If you don’t want to get into calorie counting, as a rule of thumb, you should aim for a maximum of 2 starch portions at any given meal (1 cup or 2 slices of bread). As a side note, rolls are denser than bread in terms of their starch content, so you can consider one roll to be 2 slices of bread – 3 if it is a large roll.