Although sugars are carbohydrates, and therefore nutrients, they are often described as being nutritional villains. In its refined form (table sugar, for example), sugar contains no nutrients – it just provides a burst of energy or ’empty calories’. Sugar or sucrose is added to a vast range of foods including cereals, cakes, drinks, canned products, frozen dinners and sauces and is responsible for causing tooth decay and contributing to weight gain.
Not all sugars and sugary foods are completely bad for you, however. Lactose, the sugar found in milk, is a primary energy source for babies and it also enhances the absorption of calcium in the gut. Fructose is a sugar that is found in fruit together with many important vitamins and minerals, which are essential for health. Both of these sugars are broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream more slowly than sucrose.
Some sugary foods have a misleading image. Both honey and brown sugar, for example, are reputed to be ‘healthier’ than refined white table sugar. In fact, although honey contains small traces of vitamins and minerals, it supplies mainly empty calories. It also contains more calories per tablespoon than white sugar (65 calories as opposed to 46 calories). Brown sugar is the nutritional equivalent of white table sugar.
Nutritionists advise that sugars should be eaten only in moderation. Small amounts of sugar are acceptable in the diet – as long as they are balanced with a good variety of healthier carbohydrates.
The term ‘simple carbohydrates’ is used to describe the group of foods made up of one or two linked simple sugars. Foods that contain simple sugars usually have a sweet taste. Common sources of simple carbohydrates include fruit (which provides mainly glucose and fructose), honey (which provides mainly fructose and glucose) and table sugar (which provides sucrose).
Carbohydrates at Breakfast
Breakfast is a good opportunity to increase your carbohydrate intake in the form of bread or breakfast cereals. Research shows that people who skip breakfast have slower reaction times than breakfast eaters. This is because the food fuel supply starts to run out during the night and, if it is not topped up in the morning, the body has no energy reserves to draw upon.
Most breakfast cereals provide us with energy-giving complex carbohydrates, but they do not all contain fibre. Avoid refined sugar-coated varieties of breakfast cereal and instead choose healthy whole grains.
A healthy, energy-packed option would be muesli made by mixing oat or wheat flakes with chopped fresh or dried fruit, nuts and seeds. Porridge is also recommended.