I am commonly asked about sugar intake, and of course have heard of diets that restrict sugar (in all forms) or have a 30-day “detox approach” from it. This topic is one that many have drawn a line in the sand on and can be rather confrontational about a challenge to their stance. I encourage respectful debate, as with anything I post, but here goes my take on sugar.
First off, a few of the common myths touted as truth about what happens when you consume sugar:
- Eating sugar causes a large release of insulin which makes you fat regardless of caloric intake
- All sugar is bad, whether it comes from candy or a piece of fruit
- Sugar is just as addictive as cocaine (This was in a documentary, it must be true)
So, if those are myths, what is the truth?
Sugar will not make you fat if you control your energy balance (calories in vs. calories out), eat a balanced diet emphasizing whole foods, and find ways to move daily and stay active.
What about those myths?
Yes, eating sugar does create a spike in insulin. That does not mean weight gain will occur along with it. In fact, insulin levels regularly fluctuate all day long from foods consumed and for other reasons. It still holds true that caloric balance is what matters most for weight gain / loss.
What about the position that sugar is bad, no matter the source? This one is a bit more complicated, so bear with me as I try to summarize. Refined, or added sugars, are commonly found in processed foods. To form a mental picture; think of donuts, cake, and chocolate. These foods are high in calories while containing a minimal amount of nutrients (calorie dense). Typically, processed foods will provide an immediate sugar rush, but that goes away just as quickly as it appears. On the other hand, we have naturally occurring sugars as found in fruits (fructose). Some fruits have a higher natural sugar content, but they also offer the benefits of fiber and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). I’m not debating how the body processes sugar from the differing sources but do feel that there is a drastic difference between eating habits that come from a diet based on the high palatability of processed foods / sugars. More on this later…
Sugar is as addictive as cocaine, Netflix told me so! I need a whole sub-section for this one:
What about sugar addiction?
I must respectfully disagree with the correlation equals causation approach behind stating sugar (as a sole ingredient) is addicting. I will agree that there should be an emphasis on balanced nutrition focusing primarily on whole, minimally processed foods. And sugar indeed elicits a pleasure response in the brain as shown in brain maps after consumption. However, the addiction is too savory/sweet foods high in sugar and high fructose corn syrup most typically also fat. With the caveat that fat acts less in reward pathways. As such, I’m siding with the science on this topic that sugar, on its own, is not addictive.
It isn’t like people are carrying around sugar packets in their pockets
I cannot recall where I heard that prior quote from, but it is not only funny …but true.
Eating behaviors / eating addictions and mechanisms around them need to be addressed. Overall, as noted, I agree with minimizing refined sugar and eating whole foods. Here are the documents behind my stance regarding addiction:
Different foods have varying effects on satiety. Highly palatable foods (generally combinations of fat and simple sugars) make you want to eat more compared to whole, unprocessed foods, thus altering the energy balance equation in favor of weight gain. When it comes to weight management, energy balance is king. If one desires to reduce body fat you will likely need to address sugar intake, and consuming the right type of foods will be key in that effort, such as fruits over processed options. In moderation, sugar is not nearly as harmful as many have been led to believe.
These statements are in reference to sugar intake for those whom aren’t diagnosed with a specific condition (diabetes, high blood pressure, IBS) and are otherwise considered in good health. As with any nutritional approach, each individual and their circumstances are unique and may require a path different than that of another.