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Are There “Better Sugars”?

This past Sunday, Mother’s Day, I was relaxing and watching the Today Show, when I saw something that made me do this:




Let me explain: they had a segment on cooking Mother’s Day brunch featuring Mary J. Blige’s personal chef. She was making a bunch of delicious looking stuff and making it healthy. One item was granola, using mostly nuts, dried fruit, and palm sugar. And as she’s describing the granola she keeps talking about palm sugar as “a better sugar” and a healthier sugar. Now you see why the face palm?


I see this on a lot of Paleo blogs too; they’ll use honey instead of sucrose, and almond or coconut meal instead of flour and proclaim it a healthy item.  So now seems like a good time to tackle the “better sugar” question.


The Glycemic Index


Let’s start here with a quick review. The glycemic index is a measure of how a particular food or beverage affects your blood sugar compared to 50 grams of white bread. Low glycemic foods have a glycemic index (GI) below 55, and high glycemic foods are above 70.  High glycemic foods cause a larger spike in your blood sugar, resulting in more insulin production and usually followed by a drop off. This cycle occurring over and over again can lead to insulin resistance, and ultimately diabetes. Lower glycemic foods tend to hit the blood sugar more slowly, resulting in less insulin release and a more stable curve. This graph illustrates it well (hint: you want to be closer to the blue line).

Image c/o foodpyramid.com

Image c/o foodpyramid.com


Now here is where a few common sugars fall on the glycemic index:


Screen Shot 2014-05-14 at 9.50.52 AM

Data from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Coconut Palm Sugar 




It would stand to reason that lower glycemic sugars like palm sugar and agave would be good for you compared to sucrose, right?  Not so fast. Sugar its still sugar. All forms of sugar are calorically equivalent at 4 calories per gram, and are still a source of calories that provides zero nutritional quality (no fiber, no vitamins, no minerals, no other nutrients). Agave is highly processed, and coconut palm sugar production may well be unsustainable.


It’s kind of like what I said about high fructose corn syrup and sucrose: just because one thing might be similar or slightly better than another thing, doesn’t mean both are good for you. If you’re pursuing a healthy diet, finding the healthiest type of sugar is like finding the healthiest version of Frosted Corn Cereal – one may be better than another but neither are all that great for you. If you are making something that requires sugar, think about how you can cut back on the sweetness. Maybe add a banana instead of some of the butter in cookies or bread, which will maintain consistency and add more natural sweetness. Or check out Stevia. I haven’t done any research personally (meaning I haven’t used it a bunch yet), but I’ve heard great reviews.


What are your thoughts on sugar? Do you have a go-to type of sweetener?

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Neal Thompson

    This is great. I always cringe a bit when people rave about their “paleo” desserts. I have as strong of a sweet tooth as anyone, THERE IS A FAT KID INSIDE ME TRYING TO GET OUT, but realize that sugar consumption of any kind is not ideal. It needs to be a major sometime food.

    On a side note! Here are my results for the WOD today:

    1. Bike: 90 calories/94 calories/92 calories

    2. WOD: 11:05 to one abmat for HSPU

    Nick absolutely crushed it today on the A/D. CRUSHED IT!

  2. Alex Black

    Thanks, Neal! I like to think about sugar as a treat that fits into the 20% of the diet that’s not paleo rather than using “paleo” sugars in the other 80%. Better to eat a white sugar white flour cupcake once every few months when it’s someone’s birthday at work than make paleo cookies every week.

    The threshold training was rough. I should have just let you put me on the bike. My legs are fried. Got 34, 32, then 31 calories on the rower. 9:47 on the WOD with 83# (about 2/3 of my high school body weight) and one abmat for HSPU.

  3. Shannon

    One of my bigger annoyance is paleo baked goods. I was vegan for a year and to me it is the same idea as eating ‘fake meat’ (I absolutely cringe at how processed those things are). You are trying to fit a sneaky substitute product into your diet, when the initial intention is to get clean. If I eat a baked good, I eat a real baked good. I think the sense that because it is ‘paleo’ it gets a free pass is pretty dangerous. If it feels like you are cheating, then you probably are. Good post.

  4. Mickey Grouse

    $100 to someone who can make me paleo Twix. Seriously, those things are delicious. Today, I missed seeing Sager naked by about three minutes. I’ll have to work on my timing… WOD results:

    1. Row: 47 calories/44 calories/40 calories
    2. WOD: 11:23 to two abmats for HSPU, 115#, slightly less that 50% BW

  5. G2

    Great post Alex. I feel like we are trying to convince paleo “newbies” of this all the time. Treats are just that TREATS, not everyday substitutes for everyday junk food. Now keep in mind this is coming from a guy who eats gummy bears during his workout. I do however have a reason for doing this and eat an appropriate amount instead of the whole bag (which I could EASILY do). Sugars during and immediately after your workout are great, especially those high on the GI Index. They are good for replenishing sugars lost during a HARD workout. Let me clarify what I mean by “hard.” I mean lifting heavy (85%+) for lots of reps (AND for 2+ lifts) and doing back to back WOD’s. This is a HARD workout. The glucose replenishes the energy stores and allows you to keep getting after the work with intensity. If you are doing a short intense WOD or a long steady WOD (say a 30 min recovery jog), there really isn’t a need for the extra sugars. So please don’t think I’m giving anyone carte blanche to eat candy (I know… I know), but be conscious about how intense your WOD was and what kind of recovery/replenishment you supply your body.

  6. Zack

    Awesome write up here Alex. It’s funny, the guy in the cube next to me at work has piles of fruit on his desk and eats more than a fair share everyday (hes become known for this around the office). I tried to explain to him that while fruit is relatively healthy, that is must be consumed in moderation as is very high in fructose and would be counter productive to his weight loss goals. I think this article can help to explain it better than I could I will be sharing it with him. Great work and thanks for sharing!

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