Sugar: Is it a friend or foe?

overhead shot of a jar of candy

With November comes colder weather, dreams of the holidays, and of course, leftover Halloween candy. Most people know it’s good to keep their sugar intake low, but that idea poses some questions. What even is a sugar?

Aren’t sugars carbohydrates and aren’t carbohydrates an important macronutrient? When is sugar a friend and when is it a foe?

Sugars are carbohydrates and carbohydrates are a very important macronutrient. They provide us with most of our body’s energy. Simple carbohydrates, or sugars, are made up of short chains of molecules and are quickly digested. This produces a spike in blood glucose levels, providing a short-lasting source of energy. This spike is responsible for the “sugar rush” that is commonly believed to follow the consumption of certain foods, like candy or a sugary drink. However, a review of studies in 2019 found no evidence for the existence of a “sugar rush”.1 Researchers found that there was no immediate elevation of mood or activity level; in fact, there was more of a reduction in alertness and an increase in fatigue after 30 to 60 minutes.

Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, keep blood glucose levels raised for longer and provide a more lasting source of energy. The physiological function of carbohydrates is to provide the body with energy, and complex carbohydrates do this much more effectively. It is important, though, to consider the nutrients in a food rather than just the type of carbohydrate it contains. Some simple carbohydrates are present in nutritious foods, such as milk and fruits, which contain essential vitamins and minerals. Some forms of simple carbohydrates could be healthier than certain complex carbohydrates. Therefore, it is more important to be mindful of the overall nutritional profile of the food, instead of focusing on a single nutrient.

Below are some helpful tools for determining which sugars are friends and which ones are foes:

  • Simple sugars to avoid are typically found in processed foods or those with added sugar

    • Examples: candy, sugary drinks, syrups, table sugar, fruit juice concentrate, and other processed foods with added sugars such as baked goods or cereals

  • Many fruit juices contain high amounts of added sugar

    • Whole fruits contain intrinsic sugar but also dietary fiber, which is a type of complex carbohydrate that is necessary to keep the digestive system healthy. Vegetables also have dietary fiber!

  • Whole foods containing complex carbohydrates tend to have a higher nutritional value than those made from refined grains

    • Examples of complex carbohydrates include brown rice, barley, buckwheat, oats, wild rice, vegetables, legumes, and nuts. Whole grain foods contain a layer of germ and bran which provide fiber, vitamin B and E, phytochemicals, and healthful fats. Refined grains include white flour (and items made from it), degermed cornmeal, and white rice. Knowledge about what is in food is the first step towards making healthy decisions about nutrition. It is natural to crave sugar; however, we can be mindful about how we respond to those cravings by opting for a carbohydrate alternative that provides more nutrients. The next time you walk by that tempting bowl of Halloween candy, try telling it that you’re choosing a carbohydrate that is better for your mind and body, like fruit or a half a peanut butter sandwich.

  • 1. Mantantzis K, Schlaghecken F, Sünram-Lea SI, and Maylor, EA. Sugar rush or sugar crash? A meta-analysis of carbohydrate effects on mood. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 2019;101:45-67. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.03.016.