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The Surprising Truth about Sugar and Weight Loss

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Some say that any time you eat sugar, you are “flipping a switch” that tells your body to store fat.

Diet books tell you to avoid it at all costs.

Newspaper headlines claim that it’s “more addictive” than cocaine.

But is sugar really as bad as everyone says it is? Can you eat sugar and still lose weight?

The crusade against sugar has left a lot of people worried about eating anything with “sugars” listed on the nutrition label.

However, SUGAR and SUGARS are not the same thing.

When most people talk about SUGAR, they’re referring to table sugar – the white stuff you put in your tea or coffee.

The term SUGARS can refer to one of several sources of carbohydrate, including glucose (AKA dextrose), lactose, fructose, maltose, galactose or sucrose.

When newspaper headlines announce that “zero-fat yogurts can contain five teaspoons of sugar,” it’s easy to come away with the impression that yogurt has five teaspoons of table sugar in it.

The reality is not as simple, and doesn’t make for such good headlines.

The sugar found naturally in dairy products is known as lactose. It’s a simple sugar consisting of glucose and galactose joined together. Sucrose, the name for table sugar, is made when fructose and glucose are joined together.

In other words, some of the “sugars” in yogurt will be in the form of lactose. The rest — depending on the type of yogurt and how it’s made — will normally come from sucrose.

When you see “sugars” listed on the nutrition label of a food, it can refer to one or more of several simple sugars, and not just sucrose.

Carrots, for example, contain a mixture of sucrose, glucose and fructose. The sugars in a sweet potato come from sucrose, glucose, fructose and maltose. Glucose and fructose are the sugars found in a tomato.

How does sucrose affect weight loss?

Given that so many fingers are pointing at sucrose as the “bad boy” of the nutrition world, it’s worth taking a closer look at how this particular sugar affects your ability to lose weight.

Researchers from Florida examined the impact of four diets containing different levels of sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) on the amount of weight lost over a 12-week period [2]

A group of 247 overweight or obese subjects was divided into five groups. The diets in groups 1-4 were designed to create a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day. The fifth group made no changes to their diet and acted as a control group.

  • Group one got 10% of their total calories from HFCS
  • Group two got 20% of their total calories from HFCS
  • Group three got 10% of their total calories from sucrose
  • Group four got 20% of their total calories from sucrose

If sucrose or HFCS was “flipping a switch” that tells your body to store fat, you’d expect to see a greater rate of weight loss in the two groups consuming the least amount of sugar.

Of the 162 participants who completed the study, there was no statistically significant difference in weight loss between the groups.

In a similar trial, researchers from Edinburgh also found no significant difference in weight loss when sucrose provided either 5% or 10% of total calories [1].

After eight weeks, subjects in the 10% sucrose group lost slightly more weight (6.6 pounds) compared to those in the 5% sucrose group (4.8 pounds). But the difference between the groups wasn’t large enough to reach statistical significance.

What happens when sucrose intake is even higher?

Researchers from Duke University Medical Center placed 42 women on either a high- or low-sucrose diet for six weeks [3].

In the low-sucrose diet, only 4% of the total calories came from sucrose. In the high-sucrose diet, 43% of the total calories came from sucrose, which comes to a whopping 121 grams of sucrose per day.

Once again, there was no significant difference in weight loss between the two groups. As the figure below shows, the pattern of weight loss was remarkably similar.

low-sucrose-high-sucrose-weight-loss

If you want to lose weight, eating less “junk food” is a step in the right direction. But that’s not because there is one single nutrient in there that’s making you fat. It’s because most junk food tastes good, and as a result is very easy to overeat.

It’s not too difficult to get 1000 calories from foods like cookies or ice cream in just one sitting. I have done so myself more times than I care to admit. Try eating those same 1000 calories from an omelet packed with vegetables, and you will find it considerably more difficult.

Contrary to what the food police will tell you, there is a middle ground that exists between eating nothing but Twinkies and obsessing about every single grain of sugar that passes your lips.

If you want a slice of cheesecake for dessert, by all means go ahead. If you want sugar in your tea or coffee, there’s no good reason not to. As long as your total macronutrient intake for the day is what it should be, it won’t make a great deal of difference to your results one way or the other.

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