Sugar and Metabolic Health: Can You Enjoy Both?

Learn how you can choose high-quality food sources of sugar to maintain (and even improve) your metabolic health.

woman biting into a bar of chocolate outdoors

The media gives sugar a bad rap, and for good reason. Too many added sugars can have consequences, like increasing the risk of metabolic syndrome, inflammation, and brain fog. But what the media doesn’t tell you, is that sugar is an essential fuel source for nearly all tissues in your body.

High-quality carbohydrates provide the body with fuel, fiber, and essential nutrients that support overall health. During the digestion process, carbs are broken down into smaller sugar molecules that are easier to transport throughout the body. They are glucose, sucrose, fructose, and lactose. Your body relies on these smaller molecules every day for energy to function properly.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • Why sugar is essential. 
  • The different types of sugar.
  • How natural sugars support metabolic health.

Many people fear sugar, but with some education, you can learn how to successfully incorporate sugar into your diet. So let’s start learning! 

Is Sugar Healthy or Unhealthy?

There is so much confusion about how sugar affects your health. It continues to be a huge topic in nutrition. Here are some basic essentials you need to know to fully understand how sugar impacts your health:1

  • Carbohydrates are metabolized into smaller and easier-to-digest molecules, including sugar.
  • Sugar is the primary source of fuel for your organs (including your brain), muscles, and tissues. 
  • The quality and the quantity of sugar consumed can impact your health. 
  • Too much sugar can have adverse effects on your health. 

We need sugar to function, but most of us could benefit from being more selective about where and how much sugar we consume. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong> <a href="/blog/what-is-sucrose">the science behind sugar</a>.</p>

Where Does Sugar Come From in Your Diet? 

There are two primary places where the bulk of your sugar intake comes from in your diet: natural sources and manmade sources. The natural sources of sugars are found in three foods:1

  • Fruits (contains fructose)
  • Grains contain maltose (two glucose molecules bonded together)
  • Dairy products (contain lactose) 

Choosing foods with natural sources of sugar is recommended. These foods also offer protein, healthy fats, and fiber, which slow down sugar digestion and reduce the chances of a blood sugar spike.   

Added sugars are incorporated into food and beverages to enhance the sweetness and palatability. It sounds harmless, but the amount of sugar added can be very, very high (probably surpassing the amount of sugar you would add to your own cooking). Consuming large amounts of added sugars can negatively impact your health. Examples of items with added sugars include: 

  • Baked goods, including pies, pastries, cakes, and cookies.
  • Candies and chocolates. 
  • Different condiments and sauces. 
  • Flavored and sweetened dairy products.
  • Beverages including sodas, juices, specialty coffee drinks, cocktails (and mocktails).

Anytime a sweetening agent is added to food or drink, it’s classified as an added sugar. Popular examples include high fructose corn syrup, white and brown sugar, maple syrup, and molasses. Be wary of these types of ingredients because it could be a sign that the product is going to push you beyond your daily sugar recommendations. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong> <a href="/blog/ultimate-guide-low-sugar-foods">the best low-sugar foods</a>.</p>

What About Honey?

People think that honey is superior to white sugar because it is less processed. Although this is true, and honey has more vitamins and minerals than white sugars, intake should still be minimal. 

Your metabolism will not differentiate between white sugars, brown sugars, honey, or maple syrup. They all have the same caloric value, and your metabolism will treat them all as simple sugars. Keep your intake of these foods as low as possible to reduce your risk of blood glucose spikes and undesired weight gain. 

a jar of honey with a wand in it and herbs and spices on the table next to it
Unlike table sugar, honey has antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.6

Do Our Bodies Need Sugar?

After digesting a carbohydrate, 80% of the finished molecules will be sugar (scientifically known as glucose). In this small form, the sugar molecules can easily travel throughout the body.1

The glucose molecules need to be available in abundance because they are involved with several life-supporting tasks in the body, including supplying your brain with consistent energy to function.2

The major organs involved in glucose metabolism and regulation include your liver, pancreas, adrenal gland, thyroid gland, and anterior pituitary gland. Uptake of glucose occurs in all the tissue cells in your body. 

Does Sugar Make You Fat?

Most of us will not need to use glucose after every meal right away. This is reserved for athletes who are in a race and are actively burning through their energy stores. 

Your liver will convert unused glucose into glycogen and store approximately 100g of glycogen for an emergency (like activating your fight or flight response).3Any excess glycogen is converted into triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood. Too much triglyceride production can increase your risk of non-alcoholic liver disease.4

In the Western world, many of us exceed our “storage space” because of two simultaneous factors: we eat large amounts of foods high in simple sugars, and we do not exercise enough to burn through these available glucose stores. 

If both of these lifestyle patterns are present, yes, too much sugar can lead to weight gain.1

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/reasons-for-weight-gain">reasons we gain weight</a>.</p> 

How Sugar Affects Metabolic Health

Prolonged levels of high sugar intake can negatively impact your metabolic health and lead to:5-7

  • Insulin resistance - high intake of added sugars has been linked to hyperglycemia (high blood sugars) and decreased functionality of the insulin hormone.
  • Diabetes - a diet high in added sugars may increase your risk of developing type two diabetes. 
  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD) - a greater intake of added sugars has been linked to an increased risk of CVD.
  • Obesity - consuming sugar-sweetened beverages and other refined carbohydrates significantly increase your risk of weight gain and obesity. 

Eating foods that are high in added sugar can displace more nutritious options from your diet. For example, drinking a premade smoothie may sound like a convenient and healthy option, but it actually can be high in added sugars. Filling up on a sweetened smoothie can sidetrack you from eating a more blood-sugar-friendly meal that is rich in fiber and will have less impact on your blood glucose levels. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong> <a href="/blog/smoothies-for-weight-loss">how to make smoothies that help with weight loss</a>.</p>

How Much Sugar Is Too Much?

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that anyone over the age of two should limit their added sugar intake to 10% of their total caloric intake. 

For example, if an adult ate approximately 2000 calories per day,  and one teaspoon of sugar provides approximately 20 calories, your added sugar intake should be 10 teaspoons or less per day. 

Read Nutrition Labels 

The best way to make sure your added sugar content is under control is to start reading food labels. 

Always check the serving size first to ensure the portion of food you eat lines up with the designated serving size. You may need to make some adjustments based on the serving size compared to how much you eat. 

Read through the ingredients for commonly added sugars: white sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, molasses, glucose syrup, and high fructose corn syrup. 

If you see the sugar content surpassing 20% DV, you will likely exceed the recommended daily sugar intake (assuming you are eating other foods with sugar that day, too). Try to find an alternative option that has lower sugar content. If you can’t find anything that fits your requirements, consider if it’s possible to make the product at home from scratch. 

grilled mangoes, peaches, avocados, and pineapple
Grilling fruit brings out rich flavors as the natural sugars caramelize.

Healthier Ways to Indulge Your Sweet Tooth

There are safe and nutritious ways to include sugar in your diet, and it starts with fresh fruits! The CDC recommends adults consume 1.5-2 cups equivalent of fruits per day, which is approximately 4-5 servings, depending on the size of the fruit. 

Try grilling or baking your fruit to increase the “wow” factor. Include spices and garnishes to further elevate your fruit and take it up a notch. Popular options include: 

  • Grilling pineapple slices and dusting with cinnamon. 
  • Baking peaches with toasted oatmeal, cinnamon, and a pinch of nutmeg.
  • Poach pears in a spiced broth and serve over unflavored greek yogurt and chopped nuts.
  • Serve fresh mango slices with avocado, and add a pinch of paprika or chili powder for a kick. 
  • Cook down balsamic vinegar and strawberries for a punchy dish and serve over unflavored greek yogurt. 

Cooking your fruits is an excellent technique to draw out more sophisticated flavors from your fruit. But, you can also freeze your fruit for a fun twist that is summer-appropriate. Popular options include pitted cherries, berries, and grapes

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong> <a href="/blog/low-gi-fruits">low-glycemic fruits for everyday eating</a>.</p>

Can I Still Have Chocolate? 

Choosing dark chocolate is a great compromise because it still offers the familiar cocoa taste but contains significantly fewer amounts of sugar. Opt for a dark chocolate bar that is 70% cocoa or higher because they will have less added sugars. As you decrease your sugar intake your tastebuds will adjust. 

Try to limit your intake of sweetened beverages, like hot chocolate or mocha coffee products, because they will always be a vessel for large amounts of sugar. Even a half-sweetened specialty coffee can still contain a large amount of sugar. 

Every once in a while, some sugar in your diet is okay. Remember, the guidelines state you can have up to ten teaspoons of added sugar per day and still maintain your health. Some people will turn to sweeteners to help wean their sugar cravings. Signos has an article all about sweetening agents you can find here. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Keep reading: </strong> <a href="/blog/for-the-chocolate-lovers">Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate Backed by Science</a>.</p>

Final Takeaway

Your body will break down carbohydrates into smaller sugar molecules because they are easier to transport around the body. Your vital organs, muscles, and even your brain rely on sugar for energy to function. However, too much added sugar can negatively impact your blood glucose levels, weight, and liver health.  

Familiarizing yourself with how much sugar you can take a bit of practice but it’s not something you’ll need to do every single day. 

Prioritize label-reading on prepackaged foods, which are known to be sneakily high in added sugars. Keep an eye out for common sweetening ingredients (sugar, honey, molasses, high fructose corn syrup, glucose syrup, maltose), and try to keep your intake of these foods as low as possible. 

If you want more tips on how to manage your health and diet, check out the rest of the Signos blog now!

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References

  1. Hantzidiamantis PJ, Lappin SL. Physiology, Glucose. [Updated 2021 Sep 20]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545201/ 
  2. Mergenthaler, P., Lindauer, U., Dienel, G. A., & Meisel, A. (2013). Sugar for the brain: the role of glucose in physiological and pathological brain function. Trends in neurosciences, 36(10), 587–597. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2013.07.001 
  3. Jensen, J., Rustad, P. I., Kolnes, A. J., & Lai, Y. C. (2011). The role of skeletal muscle glycogen breakdown for regulation of insulin sensitivity by exercise. Frontiers in physiology, 2, 112. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2011.00112 
  4. Tomizawa, M., Kawanabe, Y., Shinozaki, F., Sato, S., Motoyoshi, Y., Sugiyama, T., Yamamoto, S., & Sueishi, M. (2014). Triglyceride is strongly associated with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease among markers of hyperlipidemia and diabetes. Biomedical reports, 2(5), 633–636. https://doi.org/10.3892/br.2014.309
  5. Yang, Q., Zhang, Z., Gregg, E. W., Flanders, W. D., Merritt, R., & Hu, F. B. (2014). Added sugar intake and cardiovascular diseases mortality among US adults. JAMA internal medicine, 174(4), 516–524. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13563 
  6. DiNicolantonio, J. J., & OKeefe, J. H. (2017). Added sugars drive coronary heart disease via insulin resistance and hyperinsulinaemia: a new paradigm. Open heart, 4(2), e000729. https://doi.org/10.1136/openhrt-2017-000729 
  7. Luger, M., Lafontan, M., Bes-Rastrollo, M., Winzer, E., Yumuk, V., & Farpour-Lambert, N. (2017). Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Weight Gain in Children and Adults: A Systematic Review from 2013 to 2015 and a Comparison with Previous Studies. Obesity facts, 10(6), 674–693. https://doi.org/10.1159/000484566 
  8. Alam, F., Islam, M. A., Gan, S. H., & Khalil, M. I. (2014). Honey: a potential therapeutic agent for managing diabetic wounds. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2014, 169130. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/169130

About the Author

Julia Zakrzewski Headshot
Julia Zakrzewski is a Registered Dietitian and nutrition writer. She has a background in primary care, clinical nutrition, and nutrition education. She has been practicing dietetics for four years.
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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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