Sugar vs. Sugar Substitutes: A Scientific Overview

You must have heard that taking too much sugar in your diet may be your gateway to cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and diabetes.

Is that true? Yes. But is that true for ALL sugars? Not really!

If you are trying to cut down on sugars and looking for sugar substitutes to replace your bittersweet addiction to sugar, there are a few things you need to know.

  1. Not all sugars are bad
  2. Not all sugar substitutes are safe

Let’s begin by understanding sugar itself and why sugar is bad for you.

The Sweet Danger of Sugar

Natural sugars

There are two types of sugars. One is the sugar that naturally occurs in your fruits, vegetables, dairy foods, and grains. This is natural sugar, and it is not harmful.

Consuming whole-grain foods, vegetables, fruits, etc., is very healthy because these foods come with other beneficial nutrients.

Fruits and vegetables contain lots of healthy fiber, minerals, and vitamins essential to your diet. Likewise, dairy and grains come with very useful calcium and proteins.

Moreover, these foods are slowly digested and absorbed by the body. Hence, the sugar (glucose, sucrose, fructose) in them proves to be a steady and healthy supply of energy to your body, constantly replenishing your cells.

Thus, naturally occurring sugars are useful and should be consumed regularly. It is the “added sugars” that require you to raise an eyebrow and think – I need to cut down!

Added sugars – not so healthy!

The problem with sugar arises with added sugars. These are the sugars manufacturers add to processed foods such as cakes, drinks, and sweets to increase shelf life or add that extra sweetness.

These sugars are bad for you when consumed in excess because they are concentrated within the food and drinks you consume, unlike natural sugars.

Added sugars provide a sudden and large supply of sugar to your body, raising your blood glucose. Hence, insulin (hormone for sugar absorption) levels in your body rise too, and so do the calories.

Among the many effects of high sugar intake, the well-documented ones are:

  • Obesity

The equation is simple. Eating too much sugar leads to very high caloric intake and hence, obesity. But when do you take this much sugar?

Well, added sugar does not always reveal itself – it may be disguised. While cakes, flavored yogurts, cereals, candies, and soft drinks are obvious sources of sugar, you may not realize that many other processed foods, such as bread, meat, ketchup, soups, have added sugar too.

  • Diabetes

As stated earlier, high sugar intake increases blood sugar levels and insulin levels, causing type 2 diabetes. With time, your body may not produce enough insulin, or the insulin it produces may not work properly.

Thus, sugar will not be absorbed, and you will end up with diabetes.

  • Heart Disease

A lot of people do not know this, but sugars can harm your heart health. Sugars cause obesity and diabetes, both of which in turn cause heart diseases.

Moreover, high sugar intake can burden your liver, causing liver diseases, chronic inflammation, and high blood pressure, leading to heart and cardiovascular diseases.

So, what should you do to avoid the sweet dangers of sugar? Sugar substitutes are one answer!

Sugar substitutes – way out or way worse?

Two very popular sugar alternatives are:

1. Natural sweeteners

Honey, maple syrup, fruit juices, molasses, and nectars are famous natural sweeteners that can replace added sugar. For example, instead of adding sugar to your tea or coffee, you can add some honey.

While natural sweeteners may be a good substitute, they are not always natural and, most of the time, have also undergone some degree of processing and refining.

2. Artificial sweeteners

One of the most famous sugar substitutes is artificial sweeteners, but they are also the most scrutinized.

Artificial sweeteners contain zero calories and are often contained in foods labeled “diet” or “sugar-free”. Hence, if you want to lose weight, these calorie-free sweeteners are a great start.

However, they are not as heroic as they sound.

One of the biggest risks of artificial sweeteners is that anyone taking them may replace the lost calories from other sources.

If you are used to a certain amount of calories, using this no-calorie alternative may leave you feeling hungry, and you might eat something else to fill in that emptiness. Hence, all your efforts might go to waste.

Another risk factor is that artificial sweeteners are addictive. In fact, a study on rats that were exposed to cocaine showed that most of the rats chose oral saccharine, an artificial sweetener, over intravenous cocaine!

That is how addictive artificial sweeteners can be and can cause you to consume more than you intended. While you used to take 1-2 soft drinks every day, you might start consuming 4-5 diet drinks instead. As a whole, your overall soft-drink consumption increases.

Finally, a very small amount of artificial sweeteners sweeten your food as much as a very large amount of sugar would. As a result, you might shamelessly add it to your meals, and it will change the way you taste food.

Your sugar receptors will often be stimulated, and normal foods such as fruits and vegetables will become boring or too bland for your taste. Hence, you once again will find yourself eating unhealthier, processed, artificially sweetened foods than intended. A big no!

So, what should you do?

Bottom Line: Moderation is the answer

Too much sugar will harm your health. Too many sugar substitutes will also harm your health. Therefore, the best solution to this situation is moderation! Excess of anything is bad for you anyway, so it is best to take sugars in very small amounts.

Stick to natural sugars and feed that sweet tooth from time to time by using sugar substitutes, but very carefully and in small amounts.

The key is always to be mindful of what you are eating and how much. Do not let the “from tomorrow” or “since the coke is diet… I can have some cake too” fool you. Be careful, and you probably will not have to worry.

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