Learning About Sugar

WRITTEN BY: T'ara Smith, MS, Nutrition Education

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When people think of diabetes, especially Type 2 diabetes, they believe people with it can’t eat anything with “sugar” and believe it causes diabetes. But what exactly does that mean? Does it mean sugar as in no carbohydrates, period or does it mean abstaining from processed sugars such as cookies, cakes, and sodas? We breakdown the role of carbohydrates in diabetes management below.

The Link Between Sugar and Diabetes

A high-calorie diet, including a diet of processed sugar, is linked to diabetes. But, sugar itself does not cause diabetes. Instead, a variety of lifestyle, dietary, genetic, ethnic, environmental and socioeconomic factors determine the possibility of a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis. But still, understand what sugar is and how it affects the body is key to diabetes management.

So, What Is Sugar?

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. It is naturally found in foods such as fruits and vegetables or is added to any food product such as cookies, sodas, syrups, and juices. Of course, you’ll recognize other sources of simple sugars such as white granulated sugar, brown sugar, honey, powdered sugar, and agave. Artificial sugars such as Splenda, Sweet N’ Low, and Equal are low-calorie sweeteners that are at least 100 times sweeter than regular sugar, but sweeten food and drinks for little-to-no calories and carbohydrates. Other sugar sources like milk and other lactose products. So, sugar is everywhere!

Another name for blood sugar is glucose, carbs our body uses for energy. When glucose is in our blood stream, insulin is released to carry it to our cells. But sugar is called different things in our diet. Here are the other sugars we consume every day:

Fructose: Sugar from plant or fruit sources. Some examples are agave, honey, stevia, watermelon, mangoes, bananas, apples, oranges, and high-fructose corn syrup.

Sucrose: Known as table sugar. It’s found naturally in fruits and vegetables, but is also used in refined and processed foods such as cereals, ice cream, candy, and sweet beverages including soda.

Sucralose: An artificial sweetener and low-calorie or calorie-free and can be up to 650 times sweeter than regular sugar. Splenda is the most notable example.

Maltose: A simple sugar found in grains and beer.

Lactose: Found in milk and dairy products.

Hint: If it ends in “-ose” it’s a sugar.

Starch: Complex carbs/sugars that offer other nutrients like fiber. Sources include whole grains, corn, potatoes, nuts, and legumes.

Which Sugars are Good For Me? How Do These Sugars Affect My Blood Sugar?

Before we answer the first question, it’s essential to understand that the body digests those sugars different ways. Simple sugars like sucrose, fructose, maltose, and lactose can cause your blood sugar to rise quickly. Whereas complex carbs such as starch digest slowly and don’t raise your blood sugar nearly as fast. Fiber isn’t digested by your body at all. In other words, simple sugars give your body a quick burst of energy (sugar high, anyone?). Complex carbs — starches — give your body sustained energy.

So, which sugars are good for you? In short, complex carbs are the best for you because they digest slowly and are packed with more nutrients and fiber than simple carbs. But, this doesn’t mean simple sugars are bad for you. You shouldn’t discard fruit from your diet because it has the potential to raise your blood sugar faster than wheat toast. Fruit still contains vitamins, minerals, and fiber needed in your daily diet. Unless you’re lactose intolerant, dairy products provide the calcium and healthy fats to support bone growth, maintenance, and heart health.

Also, naturally-occurring simple sugars still have less sugar than refined or processed sugar-based foods. Refined sugars also contain little to no nutrients, therefore, eating a piece of fruit is always better than indulging in a piece of cake.

Can People with Type 2 Diabetes Have Sugar?

There are different nutritional approaches for glucose management. Different people with diabetes have different nutritional needs so we suggest you carefully discuss your needs and preferences with your health professional and diabetes care team. Carbohydrates are still an essential energy source your body and help provide the necessary nutrients to maintain or improve your health. All carbs aren’t created equal; it’s safe to say eating an orange is better for your health than eating a brownie. If you’re unsure how many carbs you need to maintain your blood sugar, you can determine how much certain carbs can raise your blood sugar by carb counting or referring to a glycemic index (GI). Foods with a higher GI raise your blood sugar higher than foods with a medium to low GI. Your doctor, nutritionist, or certified diabetes educator can also help you craft a diet plan to include carbohydrates tolerable for your diabetes regimen.

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T'ara Smith, MS, Nutrition Education

T’ara was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in July 2017 at the age of 25. Since her diagnosis, she focused her academic studies and career on diabetes awareness and living a full life with it. She’s excited to have joined the Beyond Type 1 team to continue her work. Outside the office, T’ara enjoys going to the movies, visiting parks with her dog, listening to BTS, and cooking awesome healthy meals. T’ara holds an MS in Nutrition Education from American University.