Our Misunderstanding of Sugar 

You’ve probably been told to cut out the sugar if you want to lose weight, but you might be surprised to know that not all sugar is bad for you. There is a misunderstanding of sugar because the word sugar is a general term used to describe all types of sugar. The misunderstanding of sugar happens because when we talk about sugar we often don’t differentiate between natural and processed sugars. The problem isn’t sugar, it’s the source.  

I came across a post from CrossFit the other day that infuriated me. The post, which has the words “no sugar” in big red letters, was full of misinformation, especially the take on natural sweeteners. Other parts of this post were just as bad, but to group natural sweeteners together with artificial sweeteners was just plain irresponsible from a company that is sponsored by Monster Energy®.

The truth is that your body needs sugar for energy, not just to get you through your workouts. It gets sugar by breaking down carbohydrates into glucose. Fruit, honey, maple syrup, and even stevia are all-natural sweeteners that can provide your body with glucose for energy and are great substitutes for processed sugar.

I will tell you more about our misunderstanding of sugar, its role in your body, and why natural sweeteners are perfectly acceptable. Before I get into that, let’s talk about the different types of sugar. 

The Four Types of Sugar

Sugar is a carbohydrate form containing carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.[1]https://www.sugar.org/sugar/what-is-sugar/ When you eat a carbohydrate, it’s broken down into glucose during the digestive process. Glucose is your body’s primary energy source, including your brain and nervous system. 

There are two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Think of it like this: Simple carbohydrates give you a quick burst of energy while complex carbohydrates give you more sustainable energy. While the goal is to give your body sustainable energy, the occasional sweet treat isn’t the end of the world. 

Complex carbohydrates contain three or more sugar molecules, whereas simple carbohydrates have either one sugar molecule (monosaccharides) or two (disaccharides). The four most common are glucose, fructose, sucrose, and lactose, and our misunderstanding of sugar lies with where it comes from. Let me explain.


Glucose is the most common monosaccharide. Your body makes glucose from the food you eat. When you eat a carbohydrate, such as bread, potatoes, and fruit, your body breaks down the carbohydrate during the digestive process and creates glucose. Glucose moves into the small intestine, where it’s absorbed into the bloodstream and sent to cells for energy. 

The pancreas releases insulin to regulate how much glucose gets into your bloodstream. Your pancreas constantly monitors your glucose levels every few seconds. When your glucose levels rise, insulin acts like a key and unlocks your muscles, fat, and liver so glucose can be stored in them as glycogen for use later.[2]https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/glucose-diabetes

Our bodies require glucose to function. If you exercise regularly, your body uses more energy and turns to glycogen to get you through your workouts.[3]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3248697/ If you feel fatigued after workouts, you’ve likely depleted your glycogen stores. 

Glucose is a natural sugar when consumed from whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables. When sugar is added to packaged foods and drinks, that form of glucose is added sugar. Nearly 6 in 10 American adults eat more added sugar than recommended every day.[4]



Fructose is a simple sugar that makes up 50% of table sugar (sucrose). I’ll talk more about table sugar in just a bit. Fructose, also known as fruit sugar, is commonly found in sugary sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup and agave. If your product has added sugar, you can be sure it’s fructose. 

Too much fructose intake contributes to metabolic syndrome and disorders such as type 2 diabetes. However, some doctors and scientists believe fructose is a safe sweetener because it causes a low rise in blood sugar levels, unlike glucose.[5]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22723585

Glucose and fructose are metabolized differently by your body. Remember, glucose is broken down during the digestive process. On the other hand, fructose is only broken down by your liver. When you eat a lot of fructose, your liver gets overloaded and turns fructose into fat. 

It is also believed that fructose leads to increased uric acid levels, fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, and obesity. When people suggest limiting sugar, fructose is on the top of that list. 


Commonly known as “table sugar,” sucrose gets formed by glucose and fructose molecule. Sucrose is a disaccharide, meaning two single molecule sugars are linked together. Despite being known as “table sugar,” sucrose is naturally found in many fruits and vegetables, including sweet potatoes, carrots, sugar beets, and most citrus fruits. 

You likely will find sucrose in all packaged foods. Sucrose is the most popular processed sugar in the world. It’s the type you buy in a bag at the grocery store and found in sodas and sports drinks, condiments such as ketchup and BBQ sauce, cereals, desserts, and ice creams. 

The source is what’s important. Eating sucrose through whole foods like vegetables and fruit will not harm your health. However, eating excess sucrose as an added sugar will have adverse effects, such as increased blood glucose levels and insulin resistance, leading to diabetes and obesity.[6]https://www.webmd.com/diet/whats-the-difference-between-sucrose-and-fructose


Lactose is the natural sugar in milk and other dairy foods made from milk like yogurt and ice cream that forms when two other sugars, glucose, and galactose, join together.[7]https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=25973 Lactose isn’t the easiest sugar to digest for many people, and nearly 10% of all Americans are lactose intolerant.

For the body to digest lactose, it uses a natural enzyme called lactase to break lactose down into these two sugars. If your body doesn’t make enough lactase, you may be unable to break down or absorb lactose properly, which can lead to symptoms of lactose intolerance. Many adults lose the lactase enzyme as they age, yet symptoms may be unnoticeable. 

Like sucrose, lactose is considered a natural and added sugar, depending on its source. Natural sources of lactose are acceptable and won’t cause any issues. Added lactose to packaged foods can lead to health problems, including obesity and diabetes.[8]https://foodinsight.org/what-is-lactose/

The common theme is that the natural sugar in whole foods is perfectly safe and won’t have any adverse effects. In contrast, processed foods can lead to blood sugar spikes, insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity. You shouldn’t worry. Everything is fine in moderation, and as a matter of fact, your body needs sugar to function properly. 

Sugar’s Role in Your Body

Carbohydrates are the fuel that provides your body with cells. You don’t need to cut the carbs or even limit their amount, as long as you consume complex carbohydrates and not simple sugars. 

As I mentioned, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, your body’s natural fuel. Some glucose is essential for brain activity, your nervous system, and your red blood cells to function properly.[9]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4224210/

The body has a natural feedback mechanism by which high glucose levels lead to increased insulin production, and low levels lead to decreased levels of this hormone. The body requires healthy insulin levels to function optimally. If there is too little insulin or it no longer functions properly, a person can develop diabetes.

Naturally occurring sugars come with various nutrients the body needs to stay healthy. For example, fruit contains fiber and multiple vitamins and minerals alongside fructose. Most foods and drinks with added sugars, such as chocolate and soda, lack these nutrients.

How Much Sugar Can I Have?

Adults’ daily recommended carbohydrate intake is 130 grams, with 45 to 65% of calories coming from carbohydrates. Eating various fruits and vegetables is a healthy way to meet these daily targets.

In contrast, it is recommended that less than or equal to 10% of daily calories should come from added sugars. The American Heart Association recommends that added sugars consumed daily should be less than 36 grams daily for men and 25 grams per day for women. 

Natural Sweeteners vs. Artificial Sweeteners

The next time you’re at the grocery store, look at the label and look for any word ending in “ose.” That’s an indication there are added sugars in that food. If you’re still reading, you’ve likely picked up on a theme – natural sugars are good, and added sugar is bad. That doesn’t mean you should pass on the cookie or piece of cake or not drink a glass of wine at dinner. 

Natural sugars are an essential part of your diet. They include sugar in fruit, vegetable, honey, and maple syrup. Stevia is a plant, so using stevia as a sweetener is considered a natural sweetener. 

Artificial sweeteners and processed sugars such as table sugar, cane sugar, Sweet’N Low, Equal, and Splenda should be avoided. They contain no nutritional value and contain aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin, which can lead to migraines, depression, weight gain, and gut health issues.[10]https://drkavitarao.com/hidden-dangers-artificial-sweeteners/

Instead of using one of these sweeteners, add a teaspoon of honey, coconut sugar, or maple syrup to your drink or recipe in the place of table sugar or artificial sweeteners. 

Sugar is a carbohydrate that occurs naturally in many foods, such as fruits and vegetables. Your body needs them. Many people consume too many sugary drinks and processed foods, which is the problem. Knowing the difference between added sugar and processed foods can help us clear up this misunderstanding about sugar in our diets. 

If you’d like to learn more about sugar, carbohydrates, and your health, schedule a free consultation with me so we can optimize your diet and put you on a path to Living Very Well™. 

About Michael
About Michael

Michael is a functional health coach and sports nutritionist based in Austin, Texas. He has a master’s degree in kinesiology from the University of Texas and advanced certification in sports nutrition from the International Society of Sports Nutrition.