By Lisbeth Irish, RDN, CDN, CDCES
Valentine's Day is approaching, and we will soon be bombarded with sugar “facts.” You may be surprised to find out that many of these so-called “facts” are, in fact, fiction.
Sugars do not cause health problems. However, an excess of sugars in a person’s diet may be associated with health problems or can make some medical conditions, like diabetes, more difficult to manage. The research on “non-nutritive sweeteners” (also known as sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners) is also not conclusive regarding health impacts.
Sugar is a form of carbohydrate. The body digests sugar (and other carbohydrates) to form glucose (also known as “blood sugar”), which provides fuel for the jobs our body performs. The brain and the central nervous system rely on glucose or “blood sugar” as an essential source of fuel while other parts of the body prefer it as a fuel source.
Some sources of sugar come with many nutrients and some do not. For example, there is sugar in fruits which are also rich with vitamins and minerals; however, refined sugar (the kind you find in sugar bowls) does not offer vitamins, minerals or fiber.
If we eat appropriate amounts of sugar and other kinds of carbohydrates, the body functions well in most circumstances. Individuals with diabetes, on the other hand, may need to modify their lifestyle, including their intake of sugar. Some people with diabetes may have big challenges with carbohydrates, including sugars, while others may have fewer challenges. It depends on the type of diabetes and its severity. For individuals with diabetes, diet choices should be discussed with the Registered Dietitian on your health care team.
So is “sugar” bad? No. It depends on the sources in your diet, how much you have in your diet, and your medical history.
Some great “rules of thumb” for most people:
- Use the picture of the plate at myplate.gov to guide how much and what kind of carbohydrates (fruit, grains, starchy vegetables) to eat. Focus on whole fruit and make half your grains whole grain.
- Drink water or low/fat-free milk instead of sugary drinks.
- Desserts, candy, etc.: eat small amounts infrequently (tip: freeze leftovers in individual serving sizes).
- Non-nutritive sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, etc.): use occasionally.
Remember: if you have diabetes or another chronic health condition, consult with your medical team. Diabetes Education and Medical Nutriton Therapy for Diabetes are Medicare-covered services.
Nutrition is not “all or nothing.” The principles of variety and moderation apply to sugars, too.
To learn more about nutrition topics and get your questions answered from nutrition specialists, please join me for my monthly Facebook livestream Ask The Experts: Nutrition Edition on the third Friday of every month on NYSOFA’s Facebook page. You can find archives of the program on NYSOFA’s SNAP Ed-NY page.
Lisbeth Irish RDN, CDN, CDCES is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist with the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA). She has over 25 years of experience working as a Registered Dietitian in a variety of settings and currently oversees the NYSOFA SNAP-Ed Nutrition Education program for older adults in New York State. Lisbeth is also a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist. She attended NY Medical College and has a degree in Nutrition from SUNY Oneonta. Lisbeth enjoys reading, nature, and traveling. Lisbeth says she feels very fortunate to be working with such a dedicated group of professionals at NYSOFA.