For those trying to lose weight or “get in shape” for the New Year (number one resolution), a better understanding of the role sugar plays in your diet and overall health may be valuable. You have probably noticed a lot of attention being paid to sugar lately. Many television stars, like Ellen DeGeneres, have shared their experiences using a “sugar cleanse” when they need to lose a few pounds and get healthier. I have had several patients and friends tell me the same thing.
For 4-6 weeks these people decide to avoid all refined sugars with the goal of losing weight and improving their health and wellness. Well, what is all the fuss about? Terms like simple sugars and simple carbs, which are purported to be bad, and complex carbs, suggested to be good, are being used ad nauseam. While medical research does not support the value of a short term “sugar cleanse,” it may have value for another reason. For example, it would be very beneficial if one engages in a “sugar cleanse” for the purpose of changing their palate with the hope of developing long term healthy eating habits, especially for those with diabetes.
So, with this in mind, I decided to find the answers to some simple questions about the fuss over sugar. What is a simple sugar? What is a complex sugar? Which sugars are good for you?
Sugars, along with starches and fibers, are one of three types of carbohydrates (also referred to as a carb). A carb is “simple” or “complex,” based on its chemical composition and how it is processed in the body. It gets a little complicated because some foods have both simple and complex carbs. Typically, simple carbs are chemically more “simple” and basic, and therefore they are broken down more easily and serve as a quick source of energy. Some of these carbs are naturally simple (like fruit and milk) while others are processed or refined sugars such as those used in candy, soda and baked goods.
To determine if a food product has good or bad simple sugar, you must also know how much fiber, vitamins and minerals are in the food. A food with a higher sugar content combined with a low fiber, vitamin or mineral content will be worse than a food with the same sugar content but high fiber and vitamins or minerals. For example: a candy bar, which is high in sugar without fiber or vitamins or minerals, is not as healthy as a fresh orange, which contains fiber, vitamins and minerals along with its simple sugar (fructose).
Examples of simple carbs:
Complex carbs have a more complicated chemical makeup and take more time for the body to break down for use as energy. Therefore, these are considered “good” carbs because they provide a more even distribution of energy for the body to use during activity. They cause a more consistent and gradual release of sugar into the blood stream (as opposed to peaks and valleys caused by simple carbs) and provide energy to function throughout the day. Additionally, “good” carbs have the added benefit of providing vitamins, fiber, and minerals that are missing from simple carbs.
Examples of complex (carbs):
Remember that carbohydrates fuel the body and are an important source of energy, especially for active and athletic people. However, carefully selecting the type of carb you eat is critical to peak function and performance.
Sources: www.everydayhealth.com; www.yourdictionary.com; Mayo Clinic
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Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine.
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