The “sugar is evil” hysteria (that’s right, I called it hysteria) is driving me crazy. Everywhere I turn, it seems, someone is spouting off about the horrors of sugar. I’m not saying that sugar is a health food, but I would like to restore some sanity about sugar and have a discussion using facts, not random thoughts of some random guru trying to sell another diet book. Rarely do you hear actual facts backed up by real science in the news, on talk shows or in articles, books or on the internet.
I will write a post all about sugar, including how the body uses it, its effects on the body and your health, and the actual real-life conspiracy that kept the dangers of consuming excessive amounts of sugar and the sugar-heart disease link hidden for decades. (Spoiler alert: Sugar industry insiders paid off the researchers to hide the bad news about sugar and only release information about the link between dietary fat and heart disease!)
For the purposes of this post, I’ll share two facts:
- Carbohydrates, simple or complex, are the most important source of energy for the body. Everyone wants to know how to “burn fat” while exercising. First, eat carbs! The body cannot use fat for energy unless there are carbs present in the body as well. This is the case for carbs found in any food – pasta, rice, donuts, cookies, whole wheat bread, fruits, vegetables and even sucrose (table sugar).
- Yes, sugar can be harmful to the body. But it’s about the amount. Ask any toxicologist about harmful or deadly substances – they aren’t poisonous or deadly as substances. It’s always about the amount of the substance. Our bodies need iron, we can’t live without it. But if we take too much, it can make us very sick or even kill us. The same goes for any fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E or K. Deficiencies of any of these cause horrible problems, such as rickets due to insufficient Vitamin D. But too much Vitamin D can cause calcium to build up in your blood, leading to nausea, vomiting, weakness, and more. As with most things in life, there’s a certain amount that improves health, but more doesn’t always mean better! It’s the amount, that cookie will not make you a diabetic!
Just about everything I’ve seen, heard or read lately about sugar is full of doom and gloom. You’d think sugar is some kind of ax murderer or something!
I was very excited to come across an article actually dispelling myths about sugar. Written for Business Insider, the author interviewed cardiologist Dr, Jennifer Haythe, from Columbian Presbyterian Hospital in New York. Here are a few of my favorite myths busted in the article, “8 Myths About Sugar You Need to Stop Believing,” along with my own thoughts about each myth as well.
MYTH: Some types of sugar are better for you than others.
FACT: All ‘types’ of sugar have the same effect on your body.
“There’s this idea that there are different types of sugar, but that’s a myth,” Haythe said. “Brown sugar, white sugar, honey… they are all ultimately broken down into the same thing: glucose. All forms of sugar are carbohydrates that can be used as glucose.”
I know some people will read this and tell me I’m ruining people’s health (I’ve actually been told this by someone who didn’t have a clue about nutrition or disordered eating). They may say there are other types of sugar that are processed differently in the body, like fructose, or the other “evil” sugar known as high fructose corn syrup. All things being equal, I’d rather have sucrose-sweetened soda than HFCS. And I do agree that regular Coke with sugar is way better than Coke with HFCS, but that’s what is used in the US. (In Mexico, they still use sugar and occasionally you can find it in the US, but not often).
There’s no grand conspiracy behind changing so many processed foods and drinks from sucrose to HFCS. Can you guess what is really behind it? It’s money. HFCS is cheaper than sugar. But the big uproar over HFCS is that it contains fructose. On the surface, the argument makes sense. Fructose has to be processed by the liver before it can be used for energy, while glucose can be used immediately.
However, what no one talks about is the molecular makeup of sucrose compared to HFCS. Both contain glucose and fructose. Sucrose is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. HFCS is 45% glucose and 55% fructose (in some products containing HFCS, the glucose content is higher than the fructose!). Looking at these facts, it’s about as useless as arguing over the difference between 1% and 2% milk. It’s 1% difference! Just drink whichever you like better, and stop arguing. (Note: When we were all crazed over cutting out fat because it was so “bad” for us, some new mothers were feeding their babies non-fat milk. If you know anyone who is doing this, tell them to please stop and let the baby have full-fat milk already! They need it and your baby isn’t overweight!)
MYTH: Sugar is as addictive as hard drugs.
FACT: There is no conclusive evidence that sugar is addictive.
“There’s no evidence that sugar can act as a gateway drug,” Haythe said. “You can’t get high from sugar, and there’s no conclusive evidence that sugar is addictive.” There are multiple conflicting studies concerning the subject of sugar addiction. One French study published in 2013 links cravings for sweets with the ‘reward’ center of our brains that are induced by addictive drugs. The study concluded that sugar can be even more addictive than cocaine.
But other doctors and researchers contest that study’s findings, stating that you only see addiction-like behavior in rodents when the animals are restricted to eating sugar for a certain time frame each day. When the test subjects are allowed to eat sugar whenever they want – like humans – the addictive properties vanish.
So feeding mice only sugar for a length of time each day makes them eat more than if the sugar is available at all times. Sounds just like intuitive eating! When you take away the restriction, the sugar isn’t something you can only have occasionally. You dream about it and want it all the time. Have it around all the time, your mind knows you can have it whenever and you usually end up eating it only when you really want it, which isn’t often.
I love the argument that says, since sugar lights up the reward center in our brain, it must mean sugar is addictive. It’s this flawed “logic” that perpetuates this myth that you can be addicted to sugar!
You know what else can light up the ‘reward’ center of our brains?
• Listening to music
• Checking off an item on your to-do list
• Having sex
• Getting into flow state
• Most things that make us happy
Yes, dopamine is absolutely related to drugs and other addictions. This doesn’t mean that everything that increases dopamine in the brain causes addiction. That’s ridiculous. Studies conducted on rats (or mice), when testing a substance to see if it is safe for humans often give the mice huge amounts of the substance. Quite often these substances given to the test subjects are in amounts so large no human could ever consume the equivalent amount.
Sugar addiction and general food addiction do not exist. There may be an addictive quality to the actual act of eating certain foods, or in obtaining the foods. But the dopamine response to food, even in someone that binge eats, is much weaker compared to the dopamine response for a narcotic or barbiturate type of drug. Besides, if you thought you were “addicted to food,” how would you feel? Would you have much hope for recovery? The stigma of addiction future complicates overcoming food issues.
Could you give your food issues to your higher power? Not when you have to eat 3 or more times a day. No one can abstain from food, therefore 12-step and other addiction recovery models do not work for long-term recovery from disordered eating. I understand why people think they are addicted to food, but even if it were a possibility, it serves no positive purpose to believe it could happen.
MYTH: You should eliminate all sugar from your diet.
FACT: Humans need glucose to survive.
Of course, having too much sugar will lead to the problems we discussed above, like weight gain and long-term health problems. But, glucose is essential to our body.
“This idea that sugar is inherently bad for you is a myth,” Haythe said. “We all need sugar; that’s the basic block of what runs our bodies. It’s necessary to survive.”
But this perspective is heavily contested in the medical community. A 2015 research widely-distributed paper from Robert Lustig – who famously has spent his career debunking the “fat is evil” myth – concluded from a series of studies that “sugar is toxic” in any form, regardless of calories or weight.
That said, eliminating all sugar from your diet would be almost impossible. Fruit, potatoes, and other starchy foods all have high glycemic indexes, so you’d have to eliminate all of them before your sugar intake was whittled down to nothing.
Glucose is the ‘sugar’ in blood sugar. As mentioned above, glucose is essential if we want to walk, talk, eat and especially think! Fat (body fat or fat in the bloodstream) cannot be used to produce energy without carbohydrate available in the body to start the complicated processes that extract energy from nutrients. Plus, our brains can only run on glucose, the brain does not use fat for energy.
On the high-protein diets so popular these days, carbohydrate intake is often dangerously low. This forces the body to break down protein for energy. Protein is used by the body for repair and generation of all body tissues and structures. It’s not an ideal energy source. When used for energy (which sometimes includes the breakdown of your own muscle tissue to obtain protein), the end result is ketone bodies. This creates the state of ketosis that low-carb people get so excited about. Yay! I get to feel like garbage for the next few days, awesome!
My point is breaking down protein (or catabolizing) from your body’s tissues or using dietary protein for energy is not an ideal state for the body. The brain wants glucose, not ketone bodies. They are just a backup system in the case of emergency. Ever wonder why your mind feels fuzzy while on a high-protein/low-carb diet? Now you have your answer. Of course, you may be so sick with the “low-carb flu” that you don’t notice your mind is running on fumes.
Another issue not mentioned in this article is that cutting out sugar, or just the thought of doing so, will cause many to quickly descend into diet mentality. Sugar becomes all you can think of, day and night. Once you break and allow yourself to have some, overeating or binging usually follows. What comes next? Yes, it’s our old friends guilt and shame. You’re back in the diet-binge cycle because you thought you were doing the “healthy” thing for your body.
Eat the cookie and enjoy it! Without deprivation, the overeating and binging won’t be as much of a problem, if at all.
MYTH: Eating too much sugar causes diabetes.
FACT: Both types of diabetes are caused by a mix of genetics and environmental factors, but a sugary diet cannot directly cause it (alone).
“Eating sugar does not cause diabetes; it’s a complicated problem involving your pancreas and metabolism,” Haythe said. “When you have diabetes, you don’t produce enough insulin. Insulin helps the glucose get absorbed into your bloodstream and liver as usable energy.”
“… This makes a diet heavy in sugar an indirect, rather than a direct cause of type 2 diabetes.”
In this article, much to my disappointment, the doctor they interviewed, Dr. Jennifer Haythe, did claim being overweight or obese can lead to insulin resistance, which can then lead to diabetes.
I really take issue with this statement. In The Intuitive Eating Workbook, written by the same authors of the book Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, cite a study in which “overweight” patients with type 2 diabetes were put on diets for weight loss and followed for six years, along with a similar group not given a diet or any eating instruction.
At the end of the six years, the researchers were quite surprised to find that the prognosis for the dieting group was worse than the group that did nothing and remained overweight. In other words, the dieting group did not improve their health or diabetes status, but the group that didn’t diet or make any attempt to lose weight were now healthier than the dieting group.
In fact, while health professionals frequently say that weight loss is the most important factor in improving health for type 2 diabetics, a mere 10% reduction in weight has been shown to improve health. Many people just give up because losing a large amount of weight seems impossible. They haven’t been told that 5 to 10% is really all that’s needed.
Of course, everyone is different and only your personal health team will be able to advise you. But it is still important to know about the research and discuss these things with your doctor. Many of the general practitioners and even the specialists these days are getting most of their education from the drug representatives that visit the office on a regular basis. Make sure you’re informed. No one else will care about your health as much as you do!
There are 8 total myths discussed in the article. They are all well-worth reading and thinking about. You can read the entire article on Business Insider right here:
What do you think about these myths? Are you relieved to learn a belief isn’t true? Maybe you’re not convinced despite having read the article. Have questions? Please feel free to comment, leave your opinion and ask questions in the comment section! I would love to hear from you and get your thoughts!