Anyone who’s opened a magazine, watched TV, or not lived under a rock for the last ten years has heard about carbs and sugar being bad for your diet. Not just one of them, but both. Carbohydrates and sugar are often lumped together be food critics and diet aficionados as the devil foods which should never be consumed.
This is hardly the truth, though. While carbohydrates and sugars may have some similarities, they are not the same thing. In fact, carbohydrates are actually good for you – in moderation. Sugar, on the other hand, is not (though it’s not necessarily as bad for you as you might be led to believe.
To understand the differences of these two substances so you can make informed decisions about your diet, let’s first look at the similarities.
Sugars are carbs, but not all carbs are sugars
If you’re eating a refined sugar, then you’re eating a dense source of carbohydrates. Eating sugar causes your body to have to process way more carbohydrates than necessary, which leads to blood sugar spikes that can eventually cause diseases like diabetes.
Refined carbohydrates, like white bread, white cookies – pretty much any white food that’s been processed, and even non processed white foods like potatoes – also causes blood sugar spikes because of the way that carbohydrates are broken down in the body. Refined carbohydrates and refined sugars are bad. (Non-refined sugars, like cane sugar, are not as bad for you as refined sugars, and can actually contain trace minerals and nutrients, but they should still be consumed in moderation.)
Non-refined carbohydrates, on the other hand, are not bad for you. Your body needs these complex carbohydrates because they’re what we use for energy. Your body breaks down complex carbohydrates over a period of time and they supply your cells and muscles with chemical energy so you can do stuff.
Complex carbohydrates are found in things like sweet potatoes and whole grains. Unlike refined carbohydrates, these are digested slowly and do not cause blood sugar spikes.
Breaking down carbs and sugar in packaged foods
It’s generally accepted that if you are buying packaged food, you’re at a much higher risk of consuming processed sugars and refined carbohydrates. There are still a few ways that you can navigate around the worst of these, though.
Reading the labels on packaged food is one of the best ways to deduce the type of carbohydrates that you’re consuming. If you look at a label that reveals a fair carbohydrate count (we’ll use GU Energy Gel as an example, which contains 22 grams of carbohydrates) and a relatively low sugar count (this product comes in at 6 grams of sugar) you’re probably looking at a complex carbohydrate.
Products that contain high levels of fiber are also more likely to contain complex carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates generally have much of the fiber out before the end product is released.
Total carbohydrate count
The total carbs that you see on the label of a food product are representative of the entire amount of carbs in the food product. The total carbohydrate count is broken down into two subsections – fiber and sugar. These two things, plus starches, create the total value for carbohydrates.
- Sugar is basically a measurement of the most basic carbs that can be found in the products. Sucrose, fructose, corn syrup, lactose, and glucose are your main Sugar’s. Since refined sugars like these aren’t necessary for your diet, there is no recommended daily intake. You should shoot for less than 25 grams a day, though.
- Fiber is actually a carbohydrate, though most people do not know this. There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Both are technically indigestible, but they serve different functions.
- Insoluble fiber helps keep you regular and it helps your body excrete toxins. It stays solid throughout your digestive system and picks up waste material and other indigestible compounds, taking strain off your liver.
- Soluble fiber bulks up in your stomach after consumption, turning into a gelatinous substance. This helps you feel full faster and is a great way to help restrict to your calorie consumption.
What about sports supplements?
The numbers for carbohydrates are fine when you are just considering the fiber and sugar content of basic supermarket foods. However, you may have noticed that most dietary supplements and sports mixes have a high carbohydrate count with a negligible sugar contents. What’s up with this?
A lot of the time, this is a result of maltodextrin. We mentioned that fiber and sugar are added together with starches to create the total carbohydrate count. Maltodextrin is a common food additive that’s made from grain starches, and it’s often added to sports products. Maltodextrin isn’t technically a simple sugar, and is considered a complex carbohydrate.
Unfortunately, labeling a substance like this is a complex carbohydrate can be dangerous. Maltodextrin has a high glycemic index, meaning it’s absorbed very quickly into the bloodstream and can cause blood sugar spikes. If it’s consumed excessively over long periods of time, it can lead to diabetes. In the short-term, though, it’s great for providing energy spikes for sports enthusiasts and exercise buffs.
There is a lot of confusion in regards to sugar and carbohydrates in the dieting world. Many people use the terms carbohydrates and sugar interchangeably, but this isn’t a good idea since each compound that has its own mechanism of action and its own unique properties.
Sugar and carbohydrates are not always bad, and in fact, carbohydrates are necessary for our bodies to function. The important thing is knowing of the difference between good and bad carbohydrates and sugars, and knowing how to find these things and use them properly.
Hopefully the information that we’ve provided today is enough for you to understand the differences between carbohydrates and sugar. With this knowledge, you should be able to make informed decisions about the food that you buy next time you go shopping.