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.
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.