In some discussions of what people with diabetes should or shouldn’t eat, sugar — any type of sugar — is seen as bad, something that spikes your blood glucose level and probably leaves you hungry again in a short while. Another, almost opposite perspective that some people with diabetes hear is that all carbs are pretty much the same, so you shouldn’t worry too much about whether your carbs are coming from various forms of sugar or from starches.
Not surprisingly, evidence points to a more complicated reality than either one of these positions. Different types of sugar are metabolized, or processed, by your body differently, so it stands to reason that all forms of sugar aren’t the same. And when it comes to sugars or starches, how quickly your blood glucose rises will depend on not just the type and amount of carbohydrate, but on what other nutrients are being consumed at the same time. Other nutrients — such as fat, protein or fiber (which is actually an indigestible form of carbohydrate) — will also affect how much, and for how long, a food satisfies your hunger.
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But in the middle of this complicated reality, a new study makes one thing clear: different forms of sugar satisfy your hunger differently, which may help inform what foods you eat.
Glucose vs. sucrose: your body’s reactions
The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, aimed to compare how people’s appetite-regulating hormones respond to consuming glucose versus sucrose. Sucrose, also known as table sugar, is actually two different types of sugar — glucose and fructose — joined by a simple chemical bond. So, in a sense, the study compared the effects of consuming pure glucose, versus consuming half glucose and half sucrose.
The participants in the study were 69 adults who consumed two different beverages on different occasions, each containing 75 grams of either glucose or sucrose. Blood samples were taken right before and then 10, 35 and 120 minutes after consuming the beverage. Researchers took measurements of the participants’ blood glucose, insulin, glucagon-like peptide (GLP-1), peptide YY (PYY) and acyl-ghrelin levels. These last three items are hormones that affect your hunger response — which insulin is, too.
The researchers found that consuming sucrose led to a “less robust” rise in blood glucose than consuming glucose — hardly surprising, since half of sucrose is fructose, which isn’t immediately available for your body as an energy source. Participants’ acyl-ghrelin responses was similar in response for the two types of sugar. Interestingly, participants who were obese had certain responses that were different from those of other participants — after consuming sucrose compared with glucose, they had smaller increases in blood glucose and PYY than other participants.
There was also a difference between men and women in certain measurements, with men showing a smaller increase than women in GLP-1 from consuming sucrose compared with glucose. Overall, though, the responses in participants followed one clear trend — lower levels of hormones that signal satiety (fullness) after consuming sucrose than after consuming glucose.
Choosing foods based on hunger response
The results of this study are difficult to apply exactly to real-world food choices — after all, most of us don’t consume drinks containing pure glucose or sucrose without eating anything else. But assuming that the effects seen in the study apply to more complex foods, there may be some relevant lessons.
Sucrose — a mix of glucose and fructose — is similar or identical to most forms of added sugar in foods, including table sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey and maple syrup. Pure glucose is not commonly used as an added sweetener, but starches are quickly broken down by your body into glucose. So based on these real-world scenarios, based on the study’s results, you’re better off eating starchy foods than sugary foods if you want to satisfy your hunger — even if your blood glucose level rises a bit more in response.
Of course, in the real world, how your blood glucose responds to a food or a meal will also depend of its fat, protein and fiber content. So with that in mind, it seems like a good bet that avoiding sugary foods, while following a balanced diet containing lots of different nutrients, is the best way to leave you feeling satisfied after you eat.
Want to learn more about eating well with diabetes? Read “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” “Top Tips for Healthier Eating,” “Baking and Cooking With Sugar Substitutes” and “Cooking With Herbs and Spices.”