Is It Time To Stop Worrying About Sugar? (You Don't Have To Quit It)
"Sugar is toxic!"
"Sugar is an addictive drug!"
"Sugar is making you fat!"
"Sugar gives you diabetes!"
"Everyone needs to quit sugar!"
I see statements like these every single day and you know what? They really rub me the wrong way. While I hardly think eating tons of sweets is a health-promoting practice, I strongly disagree with each proclamation above. I believe it’s fine to consume sugar in moderation: allow me to explain why.
There is no science that proves sugar is toxic (or even a little bit harmful) when consumed by healthy people in moderate quantities. There are many Facebook posts, articles, books, etc. which use hyperbolic language to scare people into thinking they're poisoning themselves if they eat sugar, but context and dose are rarely defined. Lots of things are toxic when consumed in large amounts, including water. This doesn’t mean we need to stop drinking water.
Some people say it’s impossible for them to moderate their sugar consumption. Others say that sugar affects them adversely. Anecdotal stories do not prove sugar is a physically addictive substance akin to street drugs. The popular media loves to share silly studies that show rats prefer sweet foods (like Oreos) to unpalatable foods (like rice cakes), but this does not mean that sugar is like heroin or cocaine or crack. (It's not.)
Sugar may stimulate the pleasure centers in the brain, but so does petting kittens (and I don’t see anyone recommending a detox for that). Just because you enjoy something does not mean it’s terrible for you, you have to feel guilty about it, and stop doing it altogether.
Sugar does not cause obesity. No one thing causes obesity. Not sugar (nor high fructose corn syrup), not carbs, not GMOs, not fast-food. Over consumption of sugar may contribute to obesity but sugar is not the cause.
Sugar does not give you diabetes. Saying so is a vast oversimplification of the situation. Type 2 Diabetes is a metabolic disorder. Over consumption of sugar may play a role in the development of type 2 Diabetes, but it's not the cause. (If you're concerned about preventing and/or treating insulin resistance, get more exercise. Exercise is pretty much the best thing you can do to improve insulin sensitivity.)
As for quitting sugar via a sugar detox or other method, I'm not a fan of that strategy. If you believe you eat too much sugar, why not try cutting back rather than abstaining 100%? Forcing yourself to eat no sugar at all for any length of time increases the likelihood of your binging on it at some point.
I want you to know that while I currently promote consuming sugar in moderation, this was not always the case. In fact, I bought into the whole “sugar is the cause of every health problem for every body” dogma for a good long while.
After a health crisis in my early twenties, I worked hard to eat as little sugar as possible for about 20 years. But then I decided to try something new. I decided to stop stressing out about sugar. Instead, I focused my energies on making sure the big picture of my lifestyle was conducive to good health. I’ve eaten a whole foods diet for years, but I made some tweaks to ensure I was eating enough nourishing foods—in balanced proportions—to support the things I do every day.
I worked on getting more sleep, moving my body in varied ways, decreasing stress, and having more fun. I gave myself permission to eat sugar whenever I want it and to never feel guilty about eating it. (After all, our bodies evolved to want and need sugar ...)
Lo and behold, I found rarely, if ever, crave sugar and I don’t eat much of it at all.
What kind of sugar do I eat when I eat it? Generally I eat unrefined types of sugar (such as raw honey, maple syrup, etc.), but occasionally I do eat white sugar. (Note that to your body, sugar is sugar.There are valid reasons to choose unrefined sweeteners over refined white sugar, but your body does not metabolize them in measurably different ways.)
When I eat sugar, I eat it and move on ... I don’t give it a second thought. I enjoy treats like ice cream, cake, and cookies (mostly homemade, but sometimes not) and I don’t dwell on whether or not they are “bad” for me. They are a small part of my real-food diet and I enjoy the heck out of them.
If you’ve been struggling with your perceived terrible relationship to sugar, if you are convinced you are addicted to sugar, I want you to please take the following into consideration:
- Are you eating enough food? As in: enough calories to support your activity level? When you under eat on a consistent basis (and/or if you restrict foods or food groups for arbitrary reasons), it’s very common to crave sugar.
- Do you eat breakfast and other meals at regular-timed intervals throughout the day? If you don’t, your blood sugar is prone to swings and this may make you crave sugar.
- Are you eating enough protein? As in: protein at every meal and snack? When you don’t eat enough protein, it’s very common to crave sugar.
- Are you eating enough healthy fats? Diets too low in high quality fats can lead to sugar cravings, too.
- Might you have food sensitivities? When I had them in my younger years (due to eating a very low calorie, restrictive diet), I had crazy cravings for sugar.
- Is it possible your body is out of balance in some way? Is something hormonal or metabolic going on? Vague, I know, but entirely plausible. If you suspect something like this is going on, please see your doctor.
- Do you get enough sleep? This one is so common! Many people don’t…not sleeping enough often leads to an increase in sugar cravings.
- Do you have a lot of stress in your life? Again, this is so common and the result for some is over consumption of sugar.
- Have you considered that your dependence on sugar is psychological? This is different than an addiction. Have you tried removing the “bad” label you’ve given to sugar? Sometimes when we make things off limits we want them more than when we allow ourselves to eat them when we want them without any “judgment”.
- Is it possible you over eat sugar because you have a binge eating disorder? Please, please, please talk to a professional about this. The reason I am sharing this list is to encourage you to look at your diet and lifestyle as a whole, and to see if you can make changes that may lead to sugar no longer being an “issue" for you.
Making these sorts of changes may also improve the way you feel and your health may benefit, as well. Attention to one or more of the above is no small task, though. I am not talking about a quick fix. It can take a while to sort this stuff out, so be patient.
(By the way, if sugar is not your issue, but some other food(s) is(are), attention to the above list may help you find resolution. Eating should not be stressful or make you feel bad or guilty. Ever.)
If, after reading this, you still feel like a sugar detox is in order, go for it! Or maybe you eliminated sugar a while back and you feel better for it ... I respect that! I am well aware that we're all different and that what works for me may not work for you.
I wish you the very best on your personal journey to good health.
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