Whether you're a real sweet-tooth or someone who loves savoury foods, it can be hard to know just how much sugar you are eating and how many calories are in all that sugar. Sugar is everywhere, from cupcakes to tomato sauce and from fruit smoothies to wine, so it can be hard to go a day without consuming any type of sugar.
So what is sugar, how many calories are in sugar, and what do those empty sugar calories do to your body? In this complete guide on sugar and sugar calories, I'll be covering everything you need to know about the different types of sugar, how calories work, and how to cut down on your overall intake.
What exactly is sugar?
The term sugar is relatively broad and covers quite a few different substances. Generally speaking, sugar is a sweet carbohydrate found in powder form, which you know as the ingredient you use to bake cakes, or put in your coffee. But sugar is actually made up of two chemicals called fructose and sucrose, and can actually come in way more forms that just the powdered form we all know, in fact honey, maple syrup, agave are all ‘types’ of sugar which break down to exactly the same thing once you eat them - fructose and glucose.
Many people wrongly believe that there are ‘healthy sugars’ such as brown sugar, raw cane sugar, or any of the syrups I’ve just mentioned, but aside from the tiny differences in micro nutrients, they are all as bad for you if you’re eating too much!
Walking along the sugar aisle of the grocery stores, you've probably noticed just how many different types of sugar are available. From white sugar to icing sugar, brown or raw sugar and even coconut sugar, these ingredients all have a slightly different profile. Then you have all of your honey and syrups too. In fact there are over 60 different types of sugar, so don't be fooled by all the names, as far as your body is concerned they are all the same once you eat them.
How many calories does sugar contain?
White table sugar contains around 387 calories per 100 grams, or around 770 calories per cup. This makes it one of those "calorie-dense" foods that bring your body a lot of energy, even when consumed in small quantities. However, whenever we eat large quantities of high sugar foods which might provide all that energy, you will be creating an unhealthy spike in your blood sugar levels which will result in a corresponding sugar slump or crash - more of this a little later...
Different types of sugar may vary in the amount of calories that they give you, but they all remain "calorie dense". Here is how they compare:
Sugar 387 Calories per 100g
Honey 304 Calories per 100g
Maple 260 Calories per 100g
Agave 310 Calories per 100g
HFC 286 Calories per 100g
Dextrose 376 Calories per 100g
Molasses 290 Calories per 100g
Let's talk about calories
So as you can see, all types of sugars contain quite a few calories. But what does it mean, and how does this affect you? In this section, we'll be discussing everything you need to know about calories, what they are, the different types, and how you may be consuming hidden calories in your everyday.
What is a calorie?
A calorie is the energy that food gives to your body. Any given food is considered "fuel" by your body, and is burned to produce energy. But the amount of energy produced greatly varies depending on the food. To assess the numbers of calories in a piece of food, scientists measure how much energy it produces when burned.
Although eating more generally means consuming more calories, foods vary in the amount of energy that they give you. As a pointer, 100 grams of lettuce give you around 13 calories, while 100 grams of the fatty fruit avocados gives you 160 calories, over 10 times as much. This is because some foods are considered to be "calorie-dense": they give you a lot of energy even when eaten in smaller quantities. This is the case for sugar as well. Let's find out why it matters!
How many calories should you be consuming?
Calories are the energy that food gives your body and there is a basic principal that if you eat fewer calories than you need, you will lose weight and if you eat more calories that you need, you will store the unused calories as fat and gain weight.
So how much energy do you really need? Well, it all depends on a number of factors. The taller and the bigger you are, the more calories you will need to keep your body running. If you are very active, and burn a lot of calories through daily exercise or activity, you will also need a lot more calories to keep you going. Here are the basic recommendations:
On average, a woman needs to consume 2000 calories each day. This number may go up to 2500 calories for an active woman who exercises each day.
On average, men need to consume 2500 calories a day, up to 3000 depending on their exercise regime.
However, there are so many factors to take into consideration when deciding how many calories you should be consuming that it is hard to give a one-size-fits-all answer. Instead, we recommend that you check out a calorie calculator that will give you the number of calories you should be consuming based on your gender, weight, height and activity level.
Are all calories the same?
The short answer to this question is no. A cup of sugar and one large nutritious meal cooked with whole grains and vegetables will give you roughly the same amount of calories. The difference is that one of these things will cause damage to your health, while the other will help you thrive.
On a very basic level, your body is able to convert any type of calorie into energy. But calories are not the only thing that your body needs. As you are probably aware, we require a correct balance of vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients to keep our bodies strong throughout the year.
As a result, it is unwise to focus on calories at the expense of nutrition. Some calories are better than others—the ones that contain the nutrients which you need!
The problem with empty calories
You may have heard the term "empty calories" before. What it basically refers to is a calorie that doesn't give your body any of the nutrients that it needs. For example, a cupcake will give your body up to 200 calories, but it won't increase your levels of vitamin C, dietary fiber, or protein to give just a few examples.
For the same amount of calories, you could be consuming an apple and a large salad, that would bring you all the fibre you need for the day, with some extra vitamins and minerals. Can you guess which one will give you the most energy?
And the big problem with sugar is that it provides empty calories, with little to no nutritional value. That fact, combined with modern diets high in added sugars, is resulting in record levels of obesity and malnutrition, with millions of people relying on sugar to provide daily energy without any of the nutritional benefits that a healthy diet would bring.
So in order to avoid consuming empty calories, ask yourself what the food you put into your body is bringing you. Are there the vitamin and minerals which you need to remain healthy? Is there protein and healthy fats? Remember: calories are just a number, not a real reflection on how a food will make your body feel.
Are you eating sugar without knowing it?
Yes, you are. Sugar is everywhere, and even while being careful to reduce sugar by not eating sweets or cake, you may still be ingesting serious amounts of sugar. This is because it is frequently used as a food additive by companies trying to make you enjoy their products more.
You will find sugar in bacon and in tomato sauce. You will find it in ready-made meals, in "healthy" breakfast cereals and in fruit juices. Sugar may be more or less well-hidden but remember: it is everywhere and you must be very careful in reading ingredient lists if you intend to avoid it.
How sugar affects your body
As well as bringing a lot of empty calories to your body, there are a couple of effects that sugar triggers when ingested. Here are a few of them:
When you eat sugar, you may feel an instant sugar high: you are energized, feel lighter and are in a better mood. This is because sugar gives your brain an instant hint of dopamine, that is actually quite addictive.
The downside of this is that sugar also gives you a "low" or a "crash", a few minutes or hours after you've consumed it. This happens because consuming sugar causes your body to release a lot of insulin, the hormone that is responsible for "dealing with" sugar, and processing it. However, your body will generally release too much insulin, leaving your blood depleted in sugar. This can make you very tired and put you in a bad mood.
As well as having an effect on your mood and energy levels, sugar also affects your weight. Because it is so densely caloric, sugar is often consumed in quantities that are too large for your body to completely eliminate. As a result, the surplus energy that sugar gives you can be stored in your body in the form of fat.
This explains why, even if you follow a low-fat diet, you can gain significant weight just from drinking soda, eating cake, or consuming other hidden diet sugars.
Finally, sugar affects most of your organs. It can lead to tooth decay, cause inflammation in the body, and damage your liver. Although it may seem like an innocent, every-day type of food, it is an ingredient you should actually be very wary of, as its effects on the whole body really do more harm than good.
I have written a blog here about all of the amazing things that happen which you cut sugar from your diet.
The most common sources of hidden sugar
Have you ever asked yourself how much sugar is in a bottle of soda or how much sugar is in white wine? Although we tend to notice sugars in solid foods, we often leave liquids out of the equation.
You may be shocked to hear that a can of cola contains the equivalent of 10 sugar cubes, and a glass or white wine may have the equivalent of one or two. Cocktails and coffee-drinks like frappuccinos are worse offenders, holding sometimes as much as 15 sugar cubes per serving. So if you are trying to reduce sugar, watch your liquids first.
How to work out how much sugar is in your food
When trying to find out how much sugar your food contains, focus on learning to read ingredient lists. Manufacturers are obliged to tell you how much sugar they put in a given product, even though they usually use a few tricks to hide them better. Look for sugar in the ingredient list. Although this won't tell you much about the quantity that is being used, sugar named as the second or third ingredient in a product is a tell-tale sign that it contains a lot of it.
To be even more precise with your calculations, go to the nutritional label. You will find "sugars" on the nutritional label of most any food, under the "carbohydrate" section per 100g. This will show you how many grams of that product is made of sugar and anything above 5g is considered high in sugar.
For foods which don't use nutritional labels, such as fruit, or a cake you bought in a shop, you may want to have a look online. There are approximations of how many calories are in a given type of food that you can find easily enough on a number of nutritional websites, I’ve linked to a couple below.
The bottom line
There are millions of people eating too much sugar on a daily basis. The World Health Organisation recommends that you eat no more than 25g (roughly 7tsp) of sugar if you are a female, and no more than 35g (roughly 9tsp) of sugar per day. But with so much sugar added to everyday foods, this level of sugar intake is becoming harder to achieve, with sugar addiction now reaching epidemic levels.
Yes, sugar is everywhere, but you can learn to understand it better to be able to limit its effects on your body. In fact, once you get your head around the crucial concept of "empty calories", you will be able to make much smarter nutritional decisions, and may even decide to ditch sugar altogether! Remember: knowing the calories of a product is useful, but it never tells you the whole story!
I hope this article has helped you understand the link between sugar, calories, and your body and if you feel you may be eating too much sugar there are plenty of blogs with help and advice on cutting down and if you would like to break your sugar addiction cycle you can sign up for my 21 Day Sugar Detox Program here.