Sugar: The Real Deal

Aug. 23, 2006 — -- Sugar is in almost everything you eat, and is often the hidden culprit behind expanding waistlines and inflated dress sizes. But there are simple things you can do to become a smart consumer of the taboo sweet and avoid packing on extra pounds. Here are the facts about sugar, and some tips on how to get the "right" sugars and avoid the "wrong" ones.

Fact No. 1 When you consume sugar regularly, you slow down the metabolism of fats, protein and carbohydrates. Sugars change how your adrenal glands produce the hormone cortisol. Cortisol regulates how your body metabolizes protein, fats and carbohydrates.

Fact No. 2 Sugar draws out nutrients from the digestive system. Any of the various kinds of processed sugars have one thing in common: They do not contain nutrients. How can your body run when it does not have fuel? It can't, so digesting sugars leads to the leaching of important nutrients and antioxidants from your body.

Fact No. 3 Sucrose, possibly the most famous sugar, is found in white cane sugar. It can be hidden in many dressings, toppings and canned goods but is also found in more obvious places: candies, cakes, molasses and syrups. Sucrose inhibits the immune system for six hours after it's consumed, leaving the body prone to infection and sickness. It's no wonder people fall ill during cookie-laden holidays.

Fact No. 4 Bacteria and viruses thrive on sugar. It's their only source of energy. So consuming sweet snacks when you're sick can often make you feel worse.

Fact No. 5 Your brain and body need sugar to run. The brain can only run on simple sugars like glucose. Glucose is the fundamental building block of all of the aforementioned sugars. When any type of carbohydrate or sugar -- from the complex sugars in a potato to the simple sugars in maple syrup -- is digested, it breaks down into glucose, a tiny compound the body absorbs easily for instant energy.

Simple Ways to Change Your Diet

Despite all the downsides of sugar, here are some easy ways to satisfy that sweet tooth and still stay healthy.

The best thing to reach for if you crave something sweet is a piece of fruit, ideally something organic, seasonal and locally grown. Your body adjusts to the climate you're in and better digests foods that grow naturally in that region.

Fructose, as the name suggests, is the sugar that comes from fruit. The fiber and antioxidants in fruit also help give your digestive system a workout as they replenish nutrients.

After fruit, look at the ingredients on the nutrition labels of your favorite foods and try to pick things that are sweetened with fruit juice, amazake, brown rice syrup, molasses, honey or maple syrup. Avoid foods sweetened with white sugar, corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup.

If you're a choco-holic, opt for dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate -- the higher the cocoa content (something above 65 percent is best) the lower the sugar content.

You don't have to cut all sugars out of your diet to be healthy: Sugars are a key element to keeping your body and brain functioning. But educating yourself about the foods you put in your body is critical to keeping your energy level and immune system running at optimal levels.

ABC News Freelancer Kate Klonick, contributed to this report.