We've all done it. Finished a tough workout or big race and rewarded ourselves with a pancake-sized peanut butter cookie, a gooey fudge brownie or our very own slice (two forks be damned!) of chocolate cake with double chocolate frosting.
For most of us, sugar is a way to celebrate. It's what we turn to when we're feeling blue, and our go-to snack when we need an afternoon pick-me-up. So much so that Americans eat an average of 150 pounds of sugar per year, often followed by a heavy dose of guilt.
But is all the self-reproach warranted? Is sugar the dietary evil we've been conditioned to believe it is? Not exactly. But sticking to a healthy eating plan does mean exercising some self-control.
Sifting Through the Sugars
"Sugar" commonly refers to simple carbohydrates composed of single and double carbohydrate molecules. Glucose, fructose and galactose are monosaccharides or single carbohydrate molecules that are the building blocks for carbohydrates. Disaccharides, on the other hand, are composed of two sugar molecules and include sucrose (table sugar) and lactose (milk sugar).
These types of sugars fall into one of two categories: they're either added sugars or naturally occurring sugars, a natural byproduct of foods not added in processing, preparation or at the table.
The key to smart sugar consumption is recognizing the good from the bad. That is, knowing which sugars provide nutrients and which offer only empty calories.
Naturally occurring sugars tend to fall into the good category. Fructose is the natural sugar found mainly in fruits, which are packed with nutrients and provide carbohydrate for fuel. Fruits are excellent sources of vitamins A and C, fiber, potassium, carotenoids and other disease-fighting phytochemicals.
While all fruits are nutritious, some fruits are super-nutritious. Tropical fruits like mangos, papayas, kiwifruit and guava are exceptionally high in antioxidants. Carotenoids are also found in deep-colored fruits such as cantaloupe, nectarines and apricots. Citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits are excellent sources of vitamin C, as are strawberries.
All these nutrients let you feel good about eating fructose. But good can turn bad when fructose is used as an additive in other foods like sugared yogurt, ice cream, sugared cereals and many processed foods. In this form, the sweetener offers little to no nutritional value and is a major ingredient in foods that provide empty calories, giving you energy but not the essential nutrients your body requires for good health.
Lactose is another naturally occurring sugar with a variety of essential nutrients. Milk and yogurt are great sources of calcium. Three servings of milk or yogurt a day provide the recommended daily amount of calcium most women need.
Lactose-intolerant individuals, who don't produce enough of the enzyme lactase to break down milk sugar, can get their calcium from specially formulated lactose-free milk in which lactose is already broken down. They can also take lactase supplements before consuming dairy products. Yogurt has lower lactose levels than milk and is generally better tolerated.
Milk and yogurt are also good sources of vitamin D, another nutrient important for healthy bones.