5 Things They’re Not Telling You About Sugar

It seems like you can’t turn around anymore without being confronted with another shocking news story or blog post about the evils of sugar. It’s almost exactly like the 80’s and 90’s, when you couldn’t turn around without bumping into another shocking news story or diet book about the dangers of dietary fat. Thank goodness we figured out that it’s not fat that’s the issue, it’s sugar, right? Whew, the real culprit has been identified. Now we can simply eliminate sugar and all our problems will go away. It’s not like we’re oversimplifying the issue like we did with fat or anything. Not like that at all. We totally learned from our previous mistaken oversimplification and it’s repercussions. Totally.

For all the alarming news stories and blog posts about sugar, there are a few things the media and bloggers aren’t telling us. I’ve compiled 5 of them.

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1. The intake of added sugars has been declining steadily since 1999.

“Americans are eating sugar in unprecedented amounts! I heard it on the news!”

Actually, according to this study, the average consumption of added sugar had decreased by 24% by 2008 since it’s peak in 1999. That’s a pretty significant decrease. It’s mostly due to decreased soda consumption, but sugar from almost all sources has decreased. The decrease is across all ethnicities and age groups. We’re consuming less added sugar. Still more than we need, but significantly less than we were. Diabetes rates continue to rise in spite of reduced sugar consumption. As do obesity rates. There goes the hypothesis that sugar causes diabetes and obesity. Perhaps there’s something else at work? Or maybe more than one thing? Nah, if it were more than one thing diet book authors couldn’t oversimplify the issue and sell sugar free diets, like they sold fat free diets in the 80’s and 90’s. We smart humans would never repeat past mistakes. Right?

Next time you’re reading an article about how much more sugar we’re eating now, check the citations to see if the author is using pre-2000 statistics. Sugar consumption rose until 1999 and then began to fall. Many sugar scare-mongers continue to rely on pre-2000 statistics though.

2. Sugar is not addictive to humans.

I know what you’re going to say. “But Amber, there’s that rat study where food was withheld for 12 hours, and then 4 hours into their normal active period they were given free access to sugar and chow, and they ended up preferring the sugar! And that other rat experiment done by a couple college students that showed oreos affect the same brain pleasure centers as cocaine!!! CLEARLY sugar is a highly addictive evil substance!”

Where to begin. How about with this review of the actual human studies in this area? A review which concluded that animal models of sucrose addiction (like the rat studies above) aren’t supported by human studies, and that there is no evidence in the available literature (of which there is quite a bit) that sugar is addictive to humans. Turns out we’ve actually examined the possibility of sugar addiction in humans and it hasn’t panned out. Interesting.

Not to mention that when you deprive rats of food, they end up overeating energy dense foods (like sugar) when given the chance. That’s not at ALL like what happens when people go on diets that restrict their calories and/or food groups, and inevitably end up binging. Not like that at all.

This study supports the conclusion that sugar itself is not addictive, and suggests instead that it is the behavior of eating that is addictive. I propose that when a problem is behavioral, it is best addressed by a behavioral-based therapy (such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) rather than a ‘therapy’ (such as a ‘Sugar Detox’) that instead targets a macronutrient that has been shown repeatedly to not be addictive. What I’m saying is that YES, some people experience addiction-like symptoms with food – but the evidence suggests that it is a behavioral issue, not a physiological one.

And none of this begins to address the vilification of things that ‘light up the brain’s pleasure centers’. Our nation’s Puritanical origins clearly mandate that things that light up the brain’s pleasure centers are BAD. You know, things like sex, food, laughter, singing and dancing…things that lead to babies, and getting enough calories to survive, and forming social bonds with other humans…following this logic, those things must be evil because they light up the brain’s pleasure centers. I guess the pleasure centers of our brain were put there by the devil to tempt us into behaviors that would propagate our species, or something like that? Can’t have that. Can’t have that at all.

3. Sugar is beneficial in some contexts.

What? Surely that can’t be right? Mercola Natural News Food Babe A random blogger A Facebook meme my trainer told me sugar is toxic! TOXIC I tell you. No way can it ever be beneficial. That’s like saying Vitamin A (toxic in high doses) or water (toxic in high doses) can be beneficial! There’s just no way that something can be both toxic and beneficial. It’s not like dose and context are ever important!

Actually, there’s a significant body of evidence that sugar is beneficial (beneficial, meaning improved performance) in the context of high intensity and endurance exercise. Sugar is also used therapeutically (as part of therapy) in cases of several gastrointestinal conditions, starvation recovery (including during eating disorder treatment) and cancer. It’s called Parenteral Feeding and involves administering a solution of glucose (sugar, folks), amino acids and lipids via an intravenous drip. Sugar is beneficial and even therapeutic in the right dose and context.

4. Sugar doesn’t actually make you fat.

I know what you’re thinking – well since we know it’s not fat, it must be sugar! We’re fat, we eat sugar, case closed! Right? (Just kidding, I know most of you aren’t actually thinking that.)

Well, as I said above, obesity rates continue to rise in spite of falling sugar intake. Lets take a closer look. This review of epidemiological and metabolic literature concluded that “high intake of sugar is negatively associated with indexes of obesity”, meaning that more sugar was actually associated with lower rates of obesity. Note that this doesn’t mean sugar is protective, simply that it doesn’t appear to be the cause of obesity. Perhaps there is more to the story? This review, while calling for more study of specific forms of carbohydrate in relation to satiety, concludes that “there is little evidence that sugars have direct negative effects on body weight control”. Both of these reviews support the American Heart Association’s conclusion that excess sugar in the diet can be problematic not because it is inherently obesogenic but because “high-sugar foods, which are sweet and calorie dense, may increase calorie consumption and lead to weight gain.” In other words, it’s not the sugar itself, but rather the excess calories from sugary foods that produces weight gain.

All of which brings me to my final THING THEY’RE NOT TELLING YOU ABOUT SUGAR:

5. A lot of the data on sugar is confounded by excess calorie intake.

This review of the scientific literature on the association of sugar and Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) concluded that “the apparent association between indexes of liver health and fructose or sucrose intake appear to be confounded by excessive energy intake. Overall, the available evidence is not sufficiently robust to draw conclusions regarding effects of fructose, HFCS, or sucrose consumption on NAFLD. ” What this means is that the science showing that sugar was associated with NAFLD ALSO showed that excess calorie intake was associated with NAFLD, and that the researchers did not believe there was sufficient evidence to conclude that sugar was causative. Call me crazy, but I suspect further investigation will yield similar findings in relation to other diseases. I have a hard time believing that this phenomenon (excess calorie intake as confounding factor) is specific to just the studies of NAFLD.

Which, again, recalls the conclusion of the American Heart Association that “high-sugar foods, which are sweet and calorie dense, may increase calorie consumption.” Perhaps it’s not the sugar itself, but the excess calories? Which would explain why diabetes and obesity are not going away as our sugar intake falls. We are eating more calories than ever. So while we repeat the mistakes of our past and fixate on a single macronutrient, it’s likely we are failing, once again, to address the true problem, and it will be that much longer until we start to make progress on reducing disease and obesity rates.

The Take-Home Message

Sugar is the latest scapegoat in a long history of macronutrient vilification. Public health agencies have been giving us the very sound advice to eat a balanced, calorie appropriate diet, with sweets in moderation, for decades. This does not mean SUGAR IS THE DEVIL NEVER LET IT PASS YOUR LIPS! It also does not mean EATING NOTHING BUT SUGAR IS A FANTASTIC IDEA! Both of those are extreme interpretations of the word moderation. What it means is that some sugar, in the context of a balanced, calorie appropriate diet, is fully within healthy eating guidelines for the general population (if you have a medical condition, follow your medical professional’s dietary advice). Some people seem to fixate on the ‘sweets in moderation’ part of the recommendations, approaching it with all (nothing but sugar!) or nothing (sugar is the DEVIL!) thinking, and ignore the more important ‘balanced, calorie appropriate’ part of them.

No, you do not need to eat sugar to be healthy. You do not need to avoid it altogether to be healthy, either.

It seems fairly evident, though, that you DO need to pay some attention to how much food you eat in general to stay healthy. And you need to make sure you’re eating a variety of foods and macronutrients, as well. You should also exercise and get enough sleep, but that’s a post for another day.

Now, some people will interpret this blog post as saying YOU SHOULD EAT LOTS AND LOTS OF SUGAR. Most of you won’t, but there are always a few, aren’t there? No, I will reiterate the American Heart Association‘s conclusion:

“To improve the overall nutrient density of the diet and to help reduce the intake of excess calories, individuals should be sure foods high in added sugar are not displacing foods with essential nutrients or increasing calorie intake.”

In other words, make sure you’re not eating so much sugar that you’re missing out on important nutrients or consuming excess calories.That sounds an awful lot like moderation to me, no?


Thinking of going on another diet? Screw that! Check out The Habit Project, my collaborative coaching program with Sean Flanagan, for a habit-based approach to health and fitness.




53 thoughts on “5 Things They’re Not Telling You About Sugar

  1. It seems fairly evident, though, that you DO need to pay some attention to how much food you eat in general to stay healthy. And you need to make sure you're eating a variety of foods and macronutrients, as well. You should also exercise and get enough sleep,

    • This is exactly what Amber said in her blog post in about ten different ways. What is your point? I don’t get how anything you just wrote is ‘adding’ anything to her post, or to the issue, in any way. I’m confused!!!!!!!

      I agree with you, by the way, and everything Amber wrote, too. I love it, actually!

      Thanks, Amber!

  2. It’s not sugar, it’s high fructose corn syrup or HFCS for those really wanting to sound scientific. HFCS is the devil! (Heavy sarcasm here, just in case you’re wondering.)

    • I don’t know, there was a study that showed it definitely wasn’t as benign as some people say.

      “The first study showed that male rats given water sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup in addition to a standard diet of rat chow gained much more weight than male rats that received water sweetened with table sugar, or sucrose, in conjunction with the standard diet. The concentration of sugar in the sucrose solution was the same as is found in some commercial soft drinks, while the high-fructose corn syrup solution was half as concentrated as most sodas.”

  3. Ha ha ha thanks for that, you made me chuckle a few times.
    Oh, the irony – two years ago I completely avoided refined sugar for the holiday season, and months after. I would eat honey occasionally, but none of that evil white stuff, or alcohol (or bread or oats, because gluten was evil too – and bread is just turned sugar when you eat it, you know?). I eventually felt sick all the time and had no energy. So I did a ‘refeed’ and the pendulum swung in the opposite direction for a while, where sugar became a life-saving essential nutrient. I put on a lot of weight then, but I don’t regret that I did it; I needed to remove the fear of certain foods. Now I can relax about food and enjoy all kinds, occasionally I over-indulge in sugary treats and sometimes I don’t eat any, because I just don’t feel like eating it. There are no addiction-withdrawal symptoms on the days I don’t think to eat sweets. I am now just starting to lose the excess fat, hopefully this trend will continue, and maybe this time next year I’ll have a healthy body again as well as a healthy attitude around food.
    Thanks again for the laughs.

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  5. We're consuming less added sugar. Still more than we need, but significantly less than we were. Diabetes rates continue to rise in spite of reduced sugar consumption. As do obesity rates.

    Wikipedia quotes the OECD OBESITY Update 2014: “Recently, in countries like England, Italy, Korea, and the United States both “obesity” as well as “overweight” are virtually stable.”

    Which is interesting given that, for example, inequality is rising and promotes obesity.

    • Looking at the first link, it shows that obesity rates have leveled off or even fallen twice over the last 15 years. And then risen sharply again and continued to climb. During the same period, sugar intake has fallen steadily. I do not believe that this current lull in the increase is enough to conclude that the trend is broken – it will take more data collected over a longer period of time to make any such conclusion.

      And yes, the second link is troubling, and more attention needs to be paid to the inaccessibility of food and health care to certain segments of the population.

  6. Thanks Amber for posting this. I wish nutritionists and doctors in general could read this valuable info. I’ve been obese all my life and have tried almost everything to get rid of the extra pounds. Everytime I’ve visited a health practitioner they’ve told me to eliminate any sugar intake and substitute it for artificial sweeteners. I’ve insisted that artificial sweeteners cause me nausea. Also there’s a history of hypoglycemia (not related to diabetes) in my family, and that whenever I’m low on sugar I feel like fainting. All they’ve ever said is that I was making excuses not to eat in a healthy way. By the way, I suffer PCOS and I’m getting treatment for it. Have shed almost 15 pounds so far; haven’t stopped eating sugar in moderate amounts. This article just confirms my theory :)

  7. I understand the point you were trying to make about calorie consumption and not sugar itself being the issue for weight gain but I believe you failed your readers/followers. There are serious health risks in consuming sugar proven through scientific research on humans, e.g. cancer.

  8. Thank you! As an addictions counselor the whole “sugar addiction” thing really irks me. There are people with true food addiction and it is one of the hardest addictions to recover from (crack addicts don’t have to continue using in moderation after all).

    The anti-sugar thing reminds me of the hoaxes on “dihydrogen monoxide” (aka water). Here’s my fave: http://www.dhmo.org/facts.html

  9. Really like the article and you bring up a ton of good points that I agree with. Nice work but this 'high-sugar foods, which are sweet and calorie dense, may increase calorie consumption and lead to weight gain.' In other words, it's not the sugar itself, but rather the excess calories from sugary foods that produces weight gain”

    It’s a bit like the chicken or the egg. Which came first? To me that just creates more confusion. Not a criticism per se just and observation.

    • No.

      If we interpret the data as ‘sugar is the problem!’ and eliminate sugar we will NOT be solving the problem. People will continue to ignore calorie intake, and continue to gain weight.

      We must address the real issue, once and for all. Macronutrient scapegoating has NEVER gotten us where we want to be, yet we continue to do it, year after year, decade after decade.

  10. I kind of feel you are just bringing it back to something that has definitely been proven not to work. If it was only about calorie restriction then how come no studies have been able to successfully implement long term and large weight losses through restricting calories. Although calorie restriction is obviously a requirement in weight loss, hormones etc also impact on our hunger levels. I think it is slightly naive to say it is behavioural, and there is no physiological component. It is trying to figure out a way to reduce that hunger so you can restrict calories.

    • You’re kidding, right? Every single metabolic ward study ever done has shown conclusively that calorie balance is king when it comes to weight loss.

      How is it naive to say it’s behavioral, when I have multiple studies to back up that assertion?

      • Firstly, I believe calorie restriction will result in weight loss. Ward studies are in controlled conditions and so the person is forced to eat certain limited foods. But any study that has restricted calories in ‘free’ subjects has never resulted in much weight loss at all. This suggests to me that there is more to it than just telling people to cut calories. Essentially I believe you are going back to that old adage of don’t overeat and if you do it’s because you have no willpower or have behavioural problems. This is as reductionist as the stance you claim against sugars been bad. It also goes against countless research that shows a massive link between diet and hormonal changes/physiology. Cutting calories is the end goal, but this might more easily be achieved by avoiding or eating specific foods that are favourable to your biology. Showing that behavioural studies can help to lose weight (and I would like to see any that results in a large amount of weight lost long term) doesn’t prove your argument that biology doesn’t matter. It just proves that behavioural changes can help. In fact you actually contradict yourself because you state people need to cut calories – this is a biological effect is it not? This isn’t anything new you are simply restating what people used to believe back in the 80’s (i.e. eat less and show some willpower), and that didn’t result in weight loss. I’m sure there is a myriad of influences that need to be considered and I just can’t help but feel you are triviliasing it to the same degree as you claim people who do not like sugar are.

        • “your argument that biology doesn't matter”

          Where did I say that?

          If you want to have a debate, you’re gonna have to stop making shit up.

        • The issue with caloric restriction is A LOT of people under report consumption. A person at a caloric deficit appropriate for their metabolism WILL lose weight. Most likely if someone isn’t losing weight on a true caloric deficit they’re probably lying about how many calories they’re consuming.

          • Agreed, underreporting is likely the central issue here. Although I don’t think people are lying – even dieticians trained to weight and measure and track accurately underreport. It’s normal human behavior.

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  12. I appreciate the balancing viewpoint here. However, “Sugar” is way too broad. Glucose, sucrose, and fructose are all different sugars that trigger very different biochemical cascades. Excess fructose in the absence of fiber is the real culprit:

  13. That’s one of a great research you got there! Either way, I really believe any food with sugar is not harmful to our body if we will eat it with BALANCE or MODERATION. There could be other factors why diseases like diabetes occur, I can’t blame the sugar intake alone.

  14. Right…just walk into any OA meeting and try telling people there that sugar is not addictive…that they just eat too much.

    Read Kathleen DesMaisons work about sugar and addiction who has made her life’s work successfully treating alcoholics with a low/no sugar diet and has been largely successful helping them stay sober where other methods (AA, therapy, etc.) have failed. I attended a lecture where she presented this data…in simplified terms, sugar works with the brain chemistry in similar ways to alcohol and narcotics (in some people). By changing your diet, you balance your brain chemistry.

    It also took me two seconds to find a couple of studies that suggest that sugar is an addictive substance:


    • the first study you linked is the rat study I cited in the post. The second isn’t a study, it’s a proposal for further study, and supports the conclusion that ‘sugar addiction’ is a behavioral addiction, not a physiological addiction. I covered both of these in the post.

      Sugar works on the brain the same way as narcotics and alcohol by activating the pleasure centers. I covered this in my post.

      Your comment about visiting an OA meeting is specious and an appeal to emotion. Of course I wouldn’t do that, because as I covered in the post, ‘eating addiction’ is a real thing that requires treatment – it’s just not a physiological issue, it’s behavioral. I covered this in the post.

  15. Great article well done!

    I personally use sugary treats to my advantage, when I need quick and condensed calories (e.g. after a workout at the gym). I always balance it out with low-sugar meals (high on vegetables/protein/healthy fat) and it works great for me.

    Many sugar cravings/addictions have a psychological basis, we often use sugar as a reward in our cultures, and that sticks around from childhood experiences and on.

    I am very curious on the amounts of sugar that are considered non-harmful (longterm) to average healthy individuals. It is very easy to consume more that we need (via overabundance of processed foods), and that has to have its toll.

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  18. Thanks for this Amber.

    Always nice to hear that people are ironing out the subtleties in ‘bro-codedness’ out there and this article of yours is no exception (long time reader, first time writer here).

    Being in Australia we have something referred to as the Australian Paradox where some studies have been performed to imply that while sugar intake has gone down, obesity rates continue to go up. The study is what it is of course but it is also being tainted as somewhat biased.

    What we know is that there is still some data to be considered amongst the variables in the original paper (which has since been edited). The problems at least in Australia tend to be associated with obvious cases such as added sugars within the country that people are simply unaware of. Another (as has been mentioned) is the identification of sugar consumption in certain foods (in other words, classic under-reporting that is more often than not done unconsciously and often by no fault of their own). If we took the self reporting as gospel, we wouldn’t appear to have an obesity concern here (that’s obviously not what’s happening though).

    Again, it comes back to overall consumption as you say and until we can clear up the situation here in Australia with more accurate reporting we won’t know what’s truly happening as it’s very likely sugar consumption is still fairly high, it’s just that it is high in addition to a larger overall caloric load (from foods that are also fat laden for example).

    It’s interesting to note that if portions can be controlled and calories properly accounted for that higher sugar intakes don’t necessarily correlate with poor health markers (say in the case of calorie restriction). I also find it interesting that in the instance of juvenile onset diabetes that sugar becomes a lifeline in so many instances rather than a drawback and in this particular instance, the more quick acting or refined the sugar is, the more effective it will be in treatment of hypoglycaemia.

    Thanks again for some of the US statistics on sugar and clarifying some misconceptions for us all.


  19. I agree with the overall general points of the post and especially agree that excess calories (and wrong macronutrient ratios) are the main problem. That said, I find the post somewhat irresponsible as like you said, it gives people an excuse that “sugar is good, eat lots of it”.

    I’ve seen firsthand the “sugar addiction” with my mom and my sister, hiding junk food so they can eat it later, refusing to change sugar intake no matter what anyone says. As stated, their problem is excess calories and they have their macronutrient ratios way messed up, but the elephant in the room is they add sugar to everything, cereal, grapefruit, tomatoes. I don’t believe for a second it’s not addictive to them, I see the same behaviors with them that I see with an alcoholic.

    My mother loves to bake, everything has a cup of sugar it seems. My active dad had a heart attack (first one EVER in family history). I was there at checkout when they went over diet plan. Thinking this was a great time to address the amount of sugar they eat (not just excess calories, messed up macronutrient ratios) I asked the nutritionist if they should watch sugar intake. Her answer, “unless you are a diabetic, no, you don’t need to”. I felt that was really irresponsible.

    Maybe I’m in the naive camp, but I do think sugar is a problem. Moderation is always key, but I don’t see the moderation in a lot of people. Not to mention that each time I eat my mom’s desserts I feel plaque on my teeth, etc. I feel it’s more complicated than your post implies.

    • I forgot to add, my dad is not overweight at all. And he’s active. They eat an enormous amount of sugar. Ice cream before bed (it’s dairy and sugar is not bad). Lattes (it’s coffee and sugar is not bad). They rarely eat fast food, but if they do they get shakes (just as well have dairy over soda).

      Despite the fact that his calories are in order (not overweight) and he’s active, he had the first heart attack in family history. I have never seen anyone eat as much sugar as they do.

      The problem with self-reporting is that they would indicate they hardly eat any sweets anymore. Sweets to them are brownies or candy bars and the nutritionist told them that they SHOULD have at least one sweet a day, so eat it no matter what. I can’t make this shit up.

      • Putting aside the fact that these are all anecdotes and therefore completely useless, ice cream before bed, coffee and a rare shake does not sound like an enormous amount of sugar.

        • Completely useless, that’s funny. The ice cream before bed, lattes and shakes were an example. They also add sugar to grapefruit, cereals, tomatoes, pancakes.

          Tell me then, the first heart attack EVER in family history. My dad isn’t overweight, he’s active. If eating ice cream before bed and loading up on sugar as long he doesn’t have excess calories is a totally fine thing, tell me why they find more blockage every time he goes in?

          • It sounds like you’re asking me to diagnose your father. I of course can’t do that – I would defer to his medical team, who it sounds like are advising that sugar isn’t the issue.

    • “I've seen firsthand the 'sugar addiction' with my mom and my sister, hiding junk food so they can eat it later, refusing to change sugar intake no matter what anyone says.” <--- this sounds more like and eating disorder than an addiction. Although, again, eating addiction is a real thing that requires treatment.

      • I’m an LPC who works with clients struggling from symptoms of binge eating disorder. I’ve never had a client tell me they binge on eggs, strawberries, or chicken…they binge on mostly high carbohydrate, high salt/high sugar foods. Clients who eliminate sugar stop bingeing. You can cite a few studies in defense of sugar but there is enough data on the gut-brain connection to show sugar hurts far more than it helps.

        • Actually, the review on the human literature I linked looked at over a hundred studies to conclude there’s no evidence it is addictive. That’s more than a few, and it’s only one of the multiple studies I presented to support my points.

          I assume that being an LPC, you know that anecdotes are not evidence.

        • I’ve been struggling from an eating disorder for quite a long time; thankfully it has started to subside lately. I was bingeing mostly on nuts and fruits, not sweets. Food had to require little to no preparation and had to come in small pieces so I could tell myself “just five cashews more and I’m done”. My cure for binge eating was repairing my relationship with food, which means MODERATION and no strange dogmas.

      • I’m not defending or supporting the article; however, HIDING food is a psychological issue.

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