If you’re trying to eat less sugar, you’ve probably done some research on the sugar-carb connection. Unfortunately, understanding the exact nature of the relationship between sugar and carbs isn’t as cut and dried as you might expect.
Questions like “Are sugar and carbohydrates the same thing?” and “Why are they listed separately on nutrition labels?” and “Are they both equally bad for you?” can be hard to answer.
To make sure you can make the healthiest and most informed choices possible, we asked a nutrition expert for the facts. Read on to learn more about the sugar-carb connection—and learn why we should be mindful of our intake of both.
The foods we eat are composed of different macronutrients, which include proteins, fats, and carbohydrates—all of which need to be broken down into smaller pieces in order to be used by the body. Protein, for example, is broken down into amino acids. According to LJ Amaral, R.D., a registered dietician who specializes in oncology and the ketogenic diet, “For carbohydrates, when they are metabolized, they get broken down into a smaller molecule called glucose.
If you think sugar when you hear the word “glucose,” you’re right on target. “Glucose is technically a form of sugar that all cells use to make energy,” says Amaral. This means that, in many ways, eating carbs has a similar effect on the body as eating sugar; both cause blood glucose levels to rise and in response, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin to help move that glucose into our cells to give us energy.
That said, not all carbs are as bad as sugar. According to the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, carbs can be categorized as either “simple” or “complex.” And as they explain on their online Nutrition Source platform: “[Complex] carbohydrates have more complex chemical structures, with three or more sugars linked together… which means they have less of an immediate impact on blood sugar, causing it to rise more slowly.” In contrast, simple carbohydrates have a simple chemical structure, which means they break down quickly and lead to a rapid rise in blood sugar.
Simple carbohydrates are found in foods like crackers, cookies, cakes, ice cream, white bread, soda, and candy. More complex carbs are found in foods like fruits, oats, vegetables, and brown rice, which have naturally occurring sugars and are typically higher in fiber, which can minimize unhealthy spikes in blood sugar.
According to experts, simple carbs are the most similar to sugar—and the ones we should be wary of.
As Amaral explains, “There is a degree to which foods can influence the glucose, or sugar, levels in your blood.” If you are eating something that is pure sugar (like candy), or close to it (like white bread), “there will be more glucose available in your blood and you will see a spike in blood glucose.”
In contrast, “Foods like dark leafy greens, berries, bell peppers, beans, etc. have more fiber, which blunts the response of the blood glucose, meaning you won’t see the same spike as you would with the white bread or candy,” she explains.
If you’re trying to avoid sugar and simple carbs, how do you spot them on a nutrition label?
According to Amaral, “Sugar is counted in the total amount of carbohydrates, and carbohydrates are technically sugar because they turn into glucose.”
Therefore, when you’re looking at nutrition labels, the number of grams of sugar is also included in the total carbohydrate count. “For example, looking at a Snickers bar, 30g of the 35g of total carbohydrates are coming from sugar,” says Amaral. This is helpful to know, but according to Amaral, we need to be more specific about where the sugars in our foods are coming from, which we can’t currently deduce from nutrition labels.
“Luckily, this year, we are switching our nutrition label so that consumers will be able to see whether the total amount of sugar on the label is coming from natural sugar, like lactose found in milk, or whether it’s coming from added sugars like honey,” says Amaral.
So there you have it! Everything you need to know about the sugar-carb connection. Remember that the carbs found in pastries, cookies, and white bread are immediately turned into sugar by your body and therefore, they are forms of sugar in and of themselves.
To stay healthy and protect your blood sugar levels and waistline, opt for more complex carbs and make sure you’re eating plenty of fiber, protein, and fat.