Sugar has a poor reputation as being an enemy when it comes to creating a nutritious and well-balanced diet. The fact is, however, that you wouldn’t be able to survive without sugar. Your body relies on small amounts of sugar to function properly. That doesn’t mean that you have license to fill up on sugary foods, but it does mean that there is a place for small amounts of the right kinds of sugar in your healthy eating plan.
Sugar provides energy to your muscles and acts as a source of energy for your brain and nervous system. You also need sugar because it helps metabolize fats and prevents your body from using protein as energy. Blood sugar — called blood glucose — gets broken down in a series of chemical reactions that create energy, which fuels your cells. A hormone called insulin is involved in the process, too — it’s released when you eat sugar and tells your cells to absorb the glucose so they can use it as a source of energy.
Glucose can also be stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. Glycogen then acts as an energy reserve that’s used when your blood glucose levels drop, such as when you exercise. You need to consume carbohydrates to keep your glycogen replenished. Eating fruits, vegetables, dairy and whole grains will help you keep an adequate store of glycogen so your glucose levels remain steady when you’re exercising, according to an article from Iowa State University. Most adults can store enough glycogen to replace glucose during 90 minutes of low-intensity exercise or up to 20 minutes of vigorous exercise. These backup stores are crucial to keeping your blood sugar stable.
The key to utilizing sugar for energy is to choose healthy sources of sugar. Fruit, for example, contains fructose, which is a natural sugar. Eating a serving of fruit, such as a banana, apple, peach, plum or handful of grapes, is a nutritious and low-calorie snack that can boost the sugars in your body before exercise or help replenish them after exercise. Fructose is a simple sugar, so it can give you a quick burst of energy. Fruit also contains fiber, which helps counterbalance the effects of fructose and keep blood sugar more stable. Sugars in dairy foods, such as milk and yogurt, are healthy choices, too, because the foods provide other nutrients, such as protein and calcium, in your diet. Complex carbs contain beneficial sugars, as well, so include whole grains and starchy vegetables in your diet.
Foods with added sugar might provide you with a quick burst of energy, but most of them are also unhealthy. Soda, for example, contains a lot of added sugar, which might give you short-term energy, but it also provides nothing in the way of essential nutrients. Further, most foods with added sugars are high in calories, so may contribute to weight gain. For better nutrition, choose nutrient-dense carbohydrate foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables.