Sugar: Friend or Foe?

Before I started doing any research on how to eat healthy, I frequently heard that eating sugary foods would make you gain weight. At my house growing up, treats like donuts, ice cream, and my mom’s famous peanut butter cookies were reserved for special occasions. Luckily for me, grandma’s house did not have the same rules. As I got older, the fear of sugary foods began to extend to items like potatoes, bread and even fruit. Fortunately, my PT certification and subsequent research has educated me on the role sugar plays in our diet. I’ve discovered that sugary foods may not be as bad as some individuals have made them out to be. Please do not assume that the rest of this blog will justify the consumption of foods high in processed sugars (i.e. birthday cakes, cronuts, milkshakes, etc.). Instead, I will simply explain the different types of sugars and the role sugar plays in our body.


Some people may not know that sugars are nutritionally classified as carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are broken down by the body to provide its preferred source of energy, glucose. Carbohydrates can be simple or complex. Simple carbohydrates are a single sugar molecule (monosaccharide) or two sugar molecules (disaccharide) bonded together. These “simple” structures are easily broken down by the body and are quickly made available to fuel immediate cellular functions. A few examples of food sources that contain simple carbohydrates are:

  • Raisins (glucose)
  • Bananas (fructose)
  • Honey (galactose)
  • Pure maple sugar (sucrose)
  • Milk (lactose)
  • Barley (maltose)

The major source of simple carbohydrates in Americans’ diet is sucrose in the form of added sugar. Unfortunately, besides providing energy for immediate physical activity, this form of simple carbohydrate provides no other nutritional value. The lack of nutritional value is most likely the reason why organizations like the American Heart Association recommend complex carbohydrates over simple carbohydrates.


Complex carbohydrates are made up of three or more sugar molecules known as polysaccharides, and are usually higher in vitamins and minerals than simple carbohydrates. It takes the body longer to break down complex carbohydrates which means they provide a more sustained source of fuel for metabolic activities. Complex carbs also contain fiber which helps control cholesterol and glucose levels and aids in digestion. Some examples of whole food items that contain complex carbs include:

  • sweet potatoes
  • kale
  • oatmeal
  • spinach
  • whole grain bread
  • pinto beans

Eating complex carbs in the form of whole food items helps you feel full quicker and longer, meaning you eat less over the duration of a day.

It appears that complex carbs are nutritionally superior to simple carbs, so why would a person ever eat simple carbs? As previously mentioned, simple carbs are a great source of quick energy a person can use to help get them through a short duration high intensity workout. Also, there are simple carb sources that can be ingested during long duration endurance activities that are designed to provide fuel while not causing stomach discomfort. If I’m running a marathon, I’d much rather have an energy gel than an apple during the race.

balanced meal

I hope this blog did more to educate than confuse. I am certainly no nutritionist nor a dietitian, but I feel I can say with confidence that not all sugary foods are inherently fattening. Don’t get me wrong, I am a proponent of rewarding oneself with some “junk” food (unless you have a specific dietary restriction) every once in a blue moon. But I feel the recipe for maintaining a healthy body is ingesting the vast majority of your simple and complex carbs in the form of whole foods while leading a physically active lifestyle. Eat your PB&J on whole grain bread then get out there and get active, because your health is worth it. HIT IT!

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