Candy, cookies, cake. These ultra-processed foods are usually what comes to mind when you see the word sugar. However, sugars occur naturally in many foods and are not always bad for you. In fact, completely avoiding sugars could prove deadly.
Like most things in life, the goal is balance. Quality over quantity. Understanding what sugars really are can allow you to make smarter choices in the supermarket and help you ensure that you’re giving your body exactly what it needs to thrive.
What Is Sugar?
Sugar is the broad name used to refer to the chemical composition of short-chain carbohydrates, or, the part of a food that makes it taste sweet. Sugars can come from various different sources, and can also be added to foods to increase their appeal.
What Is Its Biological Role?
Sugars are broken down by your body  into the most basic components it can use. This is usually glucose, which is why diabetics check their blood glucose levels to monitor their sugar intake.
The biological processes that break down the sugars release energy as a result, as well as derivatives. These are then used to fuel the function of individual cells, and to perform tasks such as muscle contraction. Sugars are also used by the brain  to help carry messages to other parts of the body.
This type of fuel is more readily available to our bodies than proteins, fats, or more complex carbohydrates, and so is usually the first to be broken down and put to work when we eat something that contains it.
How Does It Help Bodybuilders and People Who Work Out?
Individuals who work out as part of their regular routine in order to stay healthy will not generally find much use from sugars; they will aim to consume more complex carbohydrates that give the body needed fuel without so many excess calories.
Bodybuilders and serious athletes, however, may find some use from sugars. Because sugars are so molecularly simple and easily broken down by the body, they can provide a quick burst of energy to help you make it through a strenuous activity.
This sudden burst of energy also allows your body to focus on using that sugar for energy rather than the proteins your body will need to care for your muscles as you use them.
What Foods Contain It?
Sugars are naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables, honey, and milk. They can also be refined from food that contain a lot of natural sugars, which is then added to baked goods or other foods to make them taste better.
Examples of refined sugars include cane sugar, beet sugar, coconut sugar, and more. You make be surprised which prepared foods at your local grocery store contain sugar–for example, both low-fat peanut butter and most types of pasta sauce have sugar added in!
How Much Of It Do You Need?
The World Health Organization recommends that no more than 5 percent  of your total daily caloric intake be from sugars. For most people, this comes out to about 25g of sugars per day.
Are There Risks Associated With Consuming Too Much Of It?
Consuming too much sugar can wreak havoc on your body. Excess sugar can raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol, which is the opposite of what doctors want to see when they test your lipid profile.
Over time excess sugar can also cause conditions like diabetes or insulin resistance, and contributes to conditions like obesity and heart disease. Sugar is also bad for your teeth–every time you eat something with sugar in it, you are feeding the bacteria that live in your mouth and create cavities.
Are There Risks Associated With Consuming Too Little Of It?
Not having enough sugar in your system can be just as detrimental as having too much. An isolated case of low blood sugar can cause you to feel hungry, irritable or nervous, dizzy, lightheaded, nauseous, and can even make you feel sweaty and unsteady on your feet.
The tendency for your body to have too little blood sugar on a regular basis is called hypoglycemia. If your blood sugar levels drop too low, you can eventually go into what is called insulin shock, which results in loss of consciousness, seizures, and possibly even coma or death.
Regardless of whether your problem is too much or too little sugar, failing to balance your sugar consumption can cause unwanted side effects that may leave you quite ill. It’s impossible to cut them out completely and remain healthy, but neither is it a good idea to simply throw caution to the wind and eat cookies all day.
The next time you do your grocery shopping, take the time to read the nutrition labels of every item you put in your cart, and then ask yourself: is this the type of sugar I should be eating? Will this help me maintain my healthiest and best self?
References: Gilhuly, Kathryn. The Process of Breaking Down Sugar. Livestrong.com, 2015.  Batema, Cara. What Is The function of Monosaccharides In Biology?. Seattlepi.com, 2015.  World Health Organization. Sugars Intake For Adults And Children-Guideline. World Health Organization, 2015.