By Stacy Colino
A spoonful of sugar may help your health -- and even your workout. Here, surprising truths you haven't heard about sugar and your sweetener-of-choice.
Related: Candy (De)Coded: What You Need to Know About Your Favorite Sweets
1. It Doesn't Make You Fat
It only seems like those Girl Scout Cookies go straight to your thighs. Sugar doesn't automatically change into fat in your body, says Tara Gidus, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). In fact, too many calories cause weight gain -- whether they come from cookies or carrots. But when was the last time you OD'd on carrots? Sugary foods tend to be high-calorie and easy to overeat. They cause a spike in blood sugar, followed by a sudden drop that can leave you feeling depleted and hungry.
The Sweet Truth: Limit added sugars to less than 10 percent of your daily calories. If you eat 1,800 calories, that's 180 calories from sugar -- or 11 1/4 teaspoons.
Related: 12 Low-Calorie Desserts to Dig Into
2. Not All Sugars Are Created Equal
Your body responds to various sugars in slightly different ways. For example, lactose in milk is broken down more slowly than fructose in fruit, says Marisa Moore, RD, a spokesperson for the ADA. And some experts think high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) spurs overeating because it enters the bloodstream quickly and doesn't promote fullness; as a result, it's been implicated as a possible culprit in the obesity epidemic. Yet a recent American Medical Association report found that HFCS probably doesn't contribute to obesity any more than table sugar does.
The Sweet Truth: Sugar goes by many names: molasses, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, corn sweetener, and honey, and almost anything ending with -ose or syrup. Do the math to find the exact amount a product contains: Four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. So if your cereal has 16 grams per serving, that's like piling four teaspoons of sugar on your breakfast!
3. It May Improve Your Workout
An Ohio State University study of female rowers found that those who consumed dextrose (a naturally occurring sugar found in syrups and jellies) improved their rowing times nearly threefold, significantly more than those who ate ribose, a sugar often used in performance supplements. Why? "Dextrose requires minimal digestion and can be used by the muscles quickly as an energy source," says FITNESS advisory board member Leslie J. Bonci, RD, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The Sweet Truth: A pre-workout snack that contains dextrose, such as whole-grain toast with peanut butter and honey, might help you go farther or faster.
4. It Doesn't Cause Diabetes
One of the hallmarks of the disease is elevated blood sugar, so many people assume that eating too much of the sweet stuff leads to diabetes. "But sugar doesn't literally go from mouth to bloodstream," Bonci says. The exact trigger for diabetes isn't well understood, but genetic and lifestyle factors -- such as being overweight and sedentary -- appear to play key roles.
The Sweet Truth: Staying at a healthy weight lowers diabetes risk , regardless of how much sugar you eat.
5. You Can Get Addicted to It
Can't kick your candy habit? You just might be hooked. A recent study by New Zealand researchers suggests that sugary cereals and baked goods have qualities that are similar to those of addictive drugs. And scientists at Princeton University report that sugar releases opioids and dopamine, chemicals that activate the brain's pleasure receptors like drugs do.
The Sweet Truth: If eating sugary foods makes you crave more, you may be flirting with addiction. "When you're in the mood for something sweet, choose natural sugars -- like those in fresh, frozen, or dried fruit," Gidus advises. They tend to be less addictive than the sugars in processed foods.
6. It Can Make You Catch a Cold
Eating too many sweets can suppress your white blood cells, meaning you're more susceptible to infectious illnesses like colds and flu. And because high sugar intake triggers inflammation, it ends up diverting immune cells from the germ-fighting front and directing them toward the inflammation instead, explains David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center.
The Sweet Truth: In addition to limiting your intake of refined sugars to 10 percent of your daily calories, up your fruit and veggie consumption. Produce contains powerful antioxidants that can bolster your immune system and prevent low-grade inflammation.
7. Artificial Sweeteners May Actually Cause Weight Gain
You reach for diet soda to cut calories, but you might be sabotaging your success: In a series of experiments, researchers at Purdue University found that feeding no-calorie artificial sweeteners to animals actually made it harder for them to control their appetite. The theory: Because these sweeteners taste like sugar but aren't the real thing, your body keeps craving it.
The Sweet Truth: "Eating a caloric snack with an artificially sweetened food or drink -- having almonds with your diet soda, for example -- may prevent the insulin release that can cause overeating," Gidus says. Sweeteners made from the stevia plant (the newest kid on the sugar-substitute block), such as SweetLeaf and Truvia, may be a good bet, because they're natural and still calorie-free.
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