Sugar gets a bad reputation, but it’s not necessarily always bad for you.
For starters, it gives you energy you’d be hard-pressed to get from other ingredients.
“It raises our blood sugar levels which triggers the insulin release — the hormone in charge of distributing sugar to the rest of the body,” said Emilia Heiman, a registered dietitian at a Loblaws store in Toronto.
In fact, Heiman would argue that you need sugar to ensure your brain and other muscles work properly.
“Think of doing a 90-minute workout, and then you hit a wall. That’s because your body is depleted of sugar,” she said.
However, the quantity and quality of the sugar you consume is what’s most important.
Getting the right kinds of sugar
“Not all sources of sugar are the same,” Heiman continued. “Chocolate, for example, provides us with an immediate source of sugar.”
The sugar in your afternoon candy bar will be very quickly absorbed by your body, which triggers a quick release of insulin that will just as quickly drop — commonly known as a “sugar crash.”
“The quick absorption of sugar means that we also have a quick drop in our sugar levels as well, and that might cause us to feel more tired and want to eat more,” she said.
Consuming too much sugar has also been associated with heart disease, weight gain and insulin resistance, among other health concerns.
The Heart & Stroke Foundation recommends you consume no more than 10 per cent total calories per day from added sugars.
For an average 2,000 calorie-a-day diet, 10 per cent is about 48 grams (or 12 teaspoons) of sugar. (For reference, one can of pop contains roughly 10 teaspoons of sugar.)
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Heiman said natural sources of sugar, like fruits and vegetables, are “good” sources of sugar. “These sugars also contain fibre, and fibre is very essential for good health,” she said. “It helps us prevent disease and it lowers cholesterol, for example.”
She added advantage of natural sources of sugar, like apple and sweet potato, is that they keep you fuller for longer — ideal if you’re trying to avoid weight gain.
However, Heiman is of the belief that there’s “nothing wrong” for someone with a healthy diet to have a piece of cake once in awhile.
What happens when you stop eating sugar
Cutting out sugar completely can have a number of effects on your body, both positive and negative.
According to registered dietitian Stephanie Hnatiuk, at first, you may experience “cravings, hunger and preoccupation with thoughts of food.”
“Our brain actually requires sugar to function properly. In this low-energy environment, the brain is trying to keep us alive, and so we get signals from our brain to seek out energy — food,” she said. “This is the body adapting to not having the energy it needs for proper fueling.”
If you eliminate all sugars from your diet, your brain will be the organ that suffers the most.
“You may feel very irritable, low in energy and unable to concentrate, having taken away the brain’s preferred fuel source,” said Hnatiuk. “Over time, the brain can adapt to using an alternative source of energy, but this can take days or weeks to occur.”
That said, consuming less sugar can be good for your heart and stomach.
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“Heart health can improve for some people when they reduce their sugar intake… This can also improve other conditions, such as fatty liver,” Hnatiuk said. “Some people also note improvements in their digestion when they stop eating sugars, because large amounts of sugar can contribute to symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.”
Some people may lose weight, but this isn’t always the case. “Some people end up replacing those calories with ones from fats or proteins,” she said.
While less sugar can be a good thing, Hnatiuk is hesitant to promote cutting it out completely.
Portion control is better than going ‘cold turkey’
If we remove all sugar from our diet, even the ones coming from whole foods, we can put ourselves at risk of nutrient deficiencies and inadequate fibre intake for a healthy gut,” she said.
“Active people perform better on diets that contain carbohydrates, so I would not recommend removing all sugars for people who want to maintain an active lifestyle.”
Hnatiuk promotes eating patterns that are balanced and flexible. “Reducing sugars will likely be beneficial without taking an all-or-nothing approach,” she said.
Registered dietitians Andy De Santis and Andrea D’Ambrosio worry that fearing and avoiding sugar can lead to the unintended consequence of avoiding healthy foods that contain sugar.
“That’s a real problem for me as fruits are nutrient and antioxidant rich foods, which are low in calories per serving and extremely important for good health and longevity,” De Santis previously told Global News.
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“The restriction and negative feelings surrounding food leads to binge behaviours and (dieters) throwing their hands up wondering what they can eat.”
— With files from Dani-Elle Dube