Natural Sugar Versus Refined Sugar

In the health, fitness and weight loss world, sugar has become regarded as a dietary “evil” to be shunned at all costs. Unfortunately, many people lump all sugars together and don’t make a distinction between the different types of sugar and whether they are natural (nature-made) or refined (man-made).Few people would argue that refined sugars are best limited or avoided. Many people have sought out sugar alternatives that are all-natural, and have taken to replacing refined sugars with products such cane juice, cane syrup, sucanat (dehydrated cane juice), fruit juice concentrates, barley malt syrup, brown rice syrup, brown sugar, raw sugar, honey, molasses, or maple syrup.

Some people even choose organic varieties of these natural sweeteners, which they hope will help them avoid potentially harmful substances such as chemicals and pesticides.

The desire to reduce or eliminate refined sugars from the diet and replace them with “natural sugar” alternatives is a well-intentioned and commendable move towards improving health and increasing nutrient intake. However, even if the distinction is made between natural and refined sugars, this may be a move from the frying pan to the fire if another, equally important distinction is not made…

The Health – Body Fat Paradox

It’s very important to distinguish between making a decision to alter the nutritional density of your diet and the caloric density of your diet – and understand how these decisions affect your body composition as opposed to your health. Nutritional value and caloric value are not one in the same and neither are health and body composition.

Health and body composition overlap, but you can be healthy while having some excess body fat that you dont want, and you can lean while having some health problems. It would be ideal to find the balance in the middle: Lean AND healthy.

You can consume a calorie controlled diet that contains some white sugar, white flour, corn syrup and virtually any other junk food you can think of, and if you eat small amounts of them so you stay in a caloric deficit, you can still lose body fat. Conversely, You can cut 100% of the refined sugars out of your diet, and while you may obtain some health benefit from that, if you are in a calorie surplus, you will still gain body fat.

Refined sweeteners like white sugar (sucrose) and high fructose corn syrup are high in caloric value (“high calorie density”), while low or even zero in nutritional value (“low nutrient density”).

Natural sweeteners are arguably better than refined sweeteners, but regardless of the type of sweetener, they are all high in caloric density and you have to count those calories and carbohydrates!

The same also goes for sugar alcohols such as xylitol, mannitol and soribitol. Although the sugar alcohols only contain 1.5 – 3 calories per gram, those calories are also absorbed and most certainly count towards your daily totals. The only legitmate non-metabolizable carb that “doesn’t count” is dietary fiber.

Which leads us to perhaps the most important point:

Not only do the calories and carbohydrates in natural sweeteners absolutely positively countm – these natural sweeteners that are so often chosen by the health-conscious can be a source of excess calories in the diet every bit as much as white sugar and corn syrup can in the diet of people who are not health conscious.

Nutritional values of natural sugars and sweeteners
(make note of the fiber content)

brown rice syrup
1/4 cup
170 calories
42 grams carbs (fully metabolizable)
0 grams fiber

cane syrup
1 tablespoon
52 calories
13 g carbs (fully metabolizable)
0 grams fiber

cane juice
1 tablespoon
45 calories
9 g carbs (fully metabolizable)
0 grams fiber

barley malt syrup
1 tablespoon
60 calories
14 grams of carbs (fully metabolizable)
0 grams fiber

1 tablespoon
70 calories
17 grams carbs (fully metabolizable)
0 grams fiber

maple syrup
1/4 cup
200 calories
52 grams carbs (fully metabolizable)
0 grams fiber

Note the extremely high caloric density in a mere quarter cup of maple syrup. How many calories do you think come in a hearty serving of all natural, whole grain pancakes, smothered in natural maple syrup? healthy/nutritious? Perhaps. Helpful for reducing body fat? Depends on how small of a serving size you can live with. High calorie density necessitates very small servings if you wish to stay in calorie balance or in a deficit.

One tablespoon of honey or an entire piece of (fiber-containing) fruit: Which would you prefer? Which will satisfy the tummy more? (remember, you’re on a calorie “budget” when fat loss is the goal).

So while “natural” sugars might be a better choice than white sugar from a health and nutrient standpoint, the caloric load is still the same: 4 calories per gram. You have to be a bit careful in the health food store sometimes. If you go by the claims on labels, you can come out feeling VERY good about yourself, with a shopping cart full of “organic, natural” cookies, boxed cereals, nutrition bars, and so on (all still processed foods by the way), but if you dont watch those calories, you can walk out of there with a cart full of HIGH CALORIE foods as well. That in turn can easily lead you to a caloric surplus, which can lead to a real challenge with improving your body composition (reducing fat).The Other Side Of The Health – Body Fat Paradox(aka The “Clean Eating” Debate)

Understanding that the body composition aspect is almost entirely a matter of calorie balance, you could in theory, substitute a significant portion of your “clean, healthy, nutrient dense” calories with an EQUAL portion of pure white sugar and if you are in the same caloric deficit, you will continue to lose weight. The mere ingestion of sugar does not stop weight loss, as it is often believed. An insulin and blood sugar spike may not be desirable from a metabolic health, blood sugar control and fat oxidation standpoint, but it wont stop weight loss if you are in a calorie deficit.

Weight loss, weight gain or weight maintenance are all matters of CALORIE BALANCE. Yup. You can eat junk food and lose weight (provided you consistently stay in a caloric deficit). This drives the “You must eat 100% clean & natural 100% of the time” folks absolutely crazy, but it’s true.

However, this is NOT in any way an endorsement for eating a lot of sugar and junk food. High sugar consumption ad libitum tends to automatically lead to caloric surplus, so eating sugar does correlate with gaining body fat in that regard. But you also have to look at the health side, not just the body composition side. If you take the extreme mentality that body composition is only about calories, and not about the quality of the food you choose, you are going to start heading down a very slippery slope, as your health will eventually be affected by poor nutritional choices. My point is that you can have your cake, eat it and lose weight too, but only in a calorie deficit. The calories in versus calories out equation must always be obeyed. Even natural sugars can tip that equation into the fat storing surplus side.

Refined sugars should be kept to a minimum in order to allow room for the healthier, more nutrient rich foods – especially in a calorie-restricted diet. Displacement is a concern of all low calorie diets. For every refined (“junk”) food calorie you include in your limited calorie budget, another “clean” food calorie must be displaced. For health reasons alone, a high nutrient density relative to your total caloric intake should be a priority for everyone. Over time, should the nutrient density remain low, this is bound to create metabolic problems, nutrient deficiencies, or disease states that actually do affect body composition in one way or another. Again, health and body composition may be separate, but they also overlap.

In addition, large amounts of calorie-dense simple sugars, “natural” and “organic” or not, might not be all that healthy for those with metabolic and blood sugar control problems. We are suffering as a society from an epidemic of metabolic syndrome and diabetes (which very often shows up along with obesity). Some folks may exacerbate their blood sugar regulation problems and increase their blood lipids, especially triglycerides, with any high sugar/high carb diet – whether they are natural carbs and sugars or not.

Some natural sweeteners (barley malt syrup and brown rice syrup, for example), are often promoted for being low on the glycemic index and reportedly do not cause wild blood sugar fluctuations. However, diabetics and those with blood sugar regulation issues should check with their doctors or a dietician for further advice regarding each individual sweetener in regards to their own personal health situation. These natural sweeteners may not always be advisable. Even if they are ok on blood sugar, they are not low calorie foods, and all the calories count. Some people think that “less insulin/less blood sugar spike” equals less body fat, but that’s not so if you are eating too many calories.

The Bottom Line On Balancing Sugar Consumption
With Health And Leanness

Keeping refined sugars to a minimum is a good idea, but if you replace some refined ones with an equal amount of “organic, natural ones” that doesnt necessarily have anything at all to do with improving fat loss, unless that switch automatically makes you eat less of them. The lack of fiber makes me believe that use of large amounts of any concentrated simple sugars will only increase the chance of eating more, stimulating appetite more, and therefore contributing to weight gain more.

On the other hand, if you maintain your caloric deficit, there is little reason to deny yourself treat meals or free meals by cutting out ALL sugar from your diet. For some individuals, a diet that forbids all refined sugars (including beloved favorites like chocolate and ice cream,), will cause poor long term compliance. So whatever good results that person gained by cutting out 100% of the “un-clean junk food” are lost when they later fall off the wagon of their overly-strict regimen.

The key is to find your personal BALANCE. Some people prefer eating almost 100% “clean.” I happen to fall in this camp myself. My diet is usually 95-99% natural foods and clean eating, but today I recognize this as personal preference and I try not to imply that my preference is a necessity for other people. For weight loss balanced with good health, some people seem to do just fine with 80% compliance or even less. This makes perfect sense of course, when you realize the validity and importance of the calories in vs calories out equation combined with the fact that if a small percentage of your calories come from sugar it isn’t going to kill you.

For most people, I recommend a 90% compliance rule, with constant vigilance over calories (or at least portion sizes) for ALL foods – refined or natural. You can always adjust the percentage compliance number up or down based on your own goals, results and personal disposition. Your genetics and body type (“phenotype”) will at least partially dictate just how strict you have to be with your nutrition, and your weekly results will reveal the proper course of action every time: If you’re stuck at a plateau, you simply have to batten down the hatches, double check your calorie counting and increase your compliance.

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Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, personal trainer, gym owner, freelance writer and author ofBurn the Fat, Feed The Muscle(BFFM): Fat Burning Secrets of the World’s Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom has writtenover 140 articles and has been featured in IRONMAN magazine, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development,Muscle-Zine, Exercise for Men and Men’s Exercise. Tom is the Fat Loss Expert for and the nutrition editor for and his articles are featured regularly on literally dozens of other websites.