The body uses sugar as a quick and dirty shortcut to instant fuel — and it doesn’t do well with a high sugar intake over long periods of time.
Our bodies take up sugar with gusto, metabolizing it with the use of our liver and sending insulin out to knock on the doors of our cells, instructing them to let sugar in. Too much of this for too long leads to an accumulation of fat in the liver, an abnormal amount of “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides in the bloodstream, and the body becoming less sensitive to the calls of insulin.
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This decreased insulin sensitivity can lead to type 2 diabetes, while the imbalance of LDL and triglycerides increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Consistantly high or low levels of blood sugar — which can increase inflammatory markers throughout our body — can also wreak havoc on the hair growth cycle and be a sneaky roadblock to growing longer, stronger hair.
Compared to other countries, the United States, loves sugar with a capital L. In fact, Euromonitor ranked the U.S. as the country with the highest sugar consumption in the world. According to their data, the average American guzzles 126 grams of sugar per day, with sugar-enthused Germany trailing close behind at an average of 103 grams per day. That’s more than double the 50 grams of sugar per day that the World Health Organization recommends.
Compare that to the 1800s, when Americans only ate about two pounds of sugar per year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Today, the average American consumes nearly 152 pounds of sugar annually. That means that in a single week we’re eating the amount of sugar our great-great-great-great grandmother’s ate in a year. Eek.
Which sugar alternative is the healthiest?
Sugar, in its simplest form, should make up only a small amount of our diet. And the ideal source of our sugar intake should be from fibrous whole fruits. However, if you’re used to adding sweeteners to your morning coffee or baked goods, we’re here to break down the best and the worst of today’s trendy sugar replacements.
As a sugar alcohol, xylitol can give our taste buds the sweet kick it loves without the disadvantage of being as easily digested as table sugar. Instead, it adds only a small amount of carbohydrates for every gram consumed and has a much smaller impact on our blood sugar. The downside? Daily consumption of Xylitol has effects on our gut microbiome, changing our normal, healthy community balance and increasing levels of species associated with obesity and fat storage. Because they’re incompletely digested in our guts, they also only partially ferment, leading to gas buildup that can cause gastric upset complaints in some.
Coming from the blue agave plant, agave nectar hits your bloodstream with less of a roller coaster effect than table sugar, although it does still contain sugar and carbohydrates. Mice studies have shown that short term replacement of regular sugar with agave results in less weight gain, better blood sugar control, and improved insulin response. However, as agave is primarily made up of fructose (as opposed to sucrose, like table sugar) this has led experts to wonder if long-term use of agave will lead to later health issues (such as dyslipidemia and metabolic syndrome) that can result from high fructose consumption.
3. Raw Honey
Compared to table sugar, raw honey has the advantage of bringing minerals, vitamins, pollen, and protein to the party. Honey is packed with antioxidants, as well as B vitamins (which our hair and energy production love), calcium, magnesium, and zinc. It’s also perceived as sweeter than table sugar to our taste buds, meaning you use less! But while honey is made up of a different ratio of sugar molecules than table sugar and has been shown to reduce weight gain in comparison, it’s still processed by the body as a carbohydrate. So too much honey can lead to weight gain and associated health issues, making it a less optimal choice if you already have issues with insulin sensitivity.
No-calorie stevia packs a surprisingly sweet punch, hitting our taste buds with 200 times the sweetness of table sugar. Coming from the shrub Stevia rebaudiana, stevia is highly heat stable, making it a great alternative to sugar for baking and cooking. Clinical studies have shown high purity Stevia extract to have a positive effect on insulin and glucose levels, even at amounts more than seven times the usual daily intake.
This zero-calorie sweetener, extracted from the Siraitia grosvenorii plant, hits our taste buds with over 200 times the sweetening power of table sugar, while also showing impressive blood glucose-controlling activities in animal studies. Even more noteworthy: The components of monkfruit that are responsible for this sweet kick, mogrosides, are also strong antioxidants, protecting your DNA (and hair follicles!) from oxidative damage. As if monkfruit needed anything else to brag about, this extract shows promise in research against certain types of cancer. Researchers are linking some of these health benefits to its anti-inflammatory activity, which is a huge plus in the realm of both overall health and hair growth. Fun fact: Monkfruit is what gives Nutrafol’s Vitamin B-Booster its subtle sweetness.
By Dr. Kali Olsen, ND