In Part 1 of Carbohydrates Explained Simply, we covered starches, why they are important and the best sources. Now it’s time to look at sugars – simple carbs – and find out what they are, and what the best simple carbs are.
Because let’s face it – sugar is a hot topic.
We’ll look at:
- the two main types and six sub-types of sugars,
- what they do,
- the best dietary sources, and
- recommended intakes
Sugars or “simple carbs” are found in a range of processed forms as well as in natural whole foods. They are basically:
- “free sugars” – sugars that are added to foods, e.g. table sugar, maltose, beet sugar etc, or
- “natural sugars” – sugars that occur naturally in whole foods, e.g. fructose (fruit sugar), lactose (milk sugar).
Natural sugars are the best simple carbs to eat – the better, healthier choice.
When you buy packaged food, the food label on the package shows sugars as free sugar AND natural sugar combined. “Sugars” on the food label are listed as a subset of carbohydrates.
When you see products labelled as ‘no added sugar,’ they can still contain high levels of natural sugars (1), so you may need to watch how much you eat of those products.
Sugars are a form of readily-available energy that can be quickly and easily digested, then moved into working muscle tissue. They are often used by athletes as a quick, easily digestible fuel source that is low in fibre, therefore doesn’t cause any gastric upset.
There are two main categories of sugar, each with smaller sugar units (2).
While sugar is a convenient form of quick energy, it is easy to over-consume it – even if you’re eating those naturally occurring, best simple carbs.
Over-consumption of free and natural sugars can have a huge effect on your health, by:
- disrupting metabolic hormones (like insulin and leptin)
- increasing inflammation (think of any disease ending in ‘itis’ – like ‘arthritis’)
- causing weight gain
- worsening bacterial overgrowth in the body (specifically in the gut)
- increasing cravings and
- causing metabolic disease.
Much has been written about fructose specifically, in the context of weight loss:
- it is less satisfying that other sugars, so could drive hunger and cravings, and
- it is processed via a different metabolic pathway than other sugars and could cause weight gain and insulin resistance.
There are arguments for or against this because different studies show different results.
Some people have genetic or other conditions that make it hard to digest and/or absorb sugars. Those people may need to follow a low carb, low FODMAPs or fructose-free diet.
The Best Simple Carbs (Sugars) To Eat
The Dietician’s Association of Australia says that we should try to consume sugars (including fructose) from fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy foods in preference to other types of sugars (added sugars) (3).
Of course, moderation is still important!
Recommended Intakes For Free Sugar, and For Best Simple Carbs
The World Health Organisation (WHO) (2015) recommends that your daily free sugar intake should be less than 6 teaspoons per day (4). This amount includes all monosaccharide and disaccharides listed above that are considered to be ‘free’ (added) sugars, including:
- table sugar
- honey and syrups
- fruit juices
- soft drinks
- corn syrup
- any foods with added sweeteners (including sauces and dressings)
Free or added sugar:
- varies between different foods – read more here.
- is often hidden under a different name on food packaging – read more here.
Naturally Occurring Sugars
For best simple carbs that are naturally found in fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy foods, you can be more relaxed.
At Downsize Me, we find our clients can meet nutritional needs and avoid gaining weight with:
- a maximum of 1 – 2 serves of fruit per day, and
- a small handful of whole food starch at each main meal.
People who are inactive or have a chronic inflammatory disease, or a metabolic disease (like diabetes) do better with a low sugar intake (free sugar plus whole food sugars) and may need to be careful with both starch and sugar intakes to manage their insulin and avoid weight gain.
People who are very active and well-muscled, with low body fat, may be able to eat more of the naturally occurring sugars without any negative consequences.
What sorts of natural, simple sugars do you enjoy, and how do you manage the amount you eat each day?
- Food standards Australia http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/panels/Pages/default.aspx
- Cadence Health (2013) Accredited Certificate of Nutrition Text Book
- Dietician’s Association of Australia http://daa.asn.au/for-the-media/hot-topics-in-nutrition/fructose-dietary-villain-or-just-simply-demonised/
- World Health Organisation (2015) http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/sugar-guideline/en/
Chief Inspiration Coach
I'm a quirky scientist and a Health and Wellness Coach who helps 35+ women to understand and eat right for their body type.