Why this matters:
Nothing is easier than blaming sugar when it comes to unsuccessful dieting, but that blame is often very misplaced. Learn what sugar is and why it’s not as devilish as you’ve been made to believe.
[Read time: 25 minutes (stick with it; it’ll be worth it!)]
“When you start from an incorrect assumption, you reach an incorrect conclusion.” – Lyle McDonald
The above are examples of comments I see all the time, all over the internet, as well as from clients, friends and on talk shows.
Don’t stiffen up. I’m not here just to tell you that “sugar is OK.” That’s not the argument I want to make. I am not going to throw in an “if it fits your macros argument in” either, or lecture you to not “restrict yourself and practice moderation cause it’s good mentally to have treats.”
You’ve heard that all before.
I want to discuss sugar specifically and the misconceptions surrounding this food or “category” of food. I hear of many “cutting out sugar” as a diet resolution, or berating themselves about their “sugar addiction” as the reason for their lack of weight loss. Or attempting to minimize sugar for vague health reasons that are related to body composition goals. I thought it would be useful to do a blog post pinpointing this topic specifically, especially as it applies to success in fat loss. And I also wanted to address the topic from the “sugar” perspective as opposed to the “carb” perspective.
Those two words have so much lumped into them, that it’s time for a bit of clarity. My own sanity demands it.
You don’t know how many times I hear people tell me they “are just going to cut out sugar” when they start a diet or health kick. They shake their heads sadly when they admit that they have been indulging too much. Maybe they have. Yet, somehow it’s sugar’s fault. They try to cut out sweets, fruits, desserts, chips and bread, etc, but will give in eventually and binge or think that they need to resist forever. Sugar is always bad, and that presumption is the basis from which they start their diet journey.
Here are examples of several cycles I see when this approach is taken:
1. Cut out “sugar” > Give in > binge > try moderation > eat too much overall anyway > stay the same
2.Cut out “sugar” > Give in > binge > decide to have cheat days > binge weekly > repeat > no progress
3. Cut out “sugar” > Give in > binge > horrible guilt > over compensate > binge > disordered eating
4. Cut out “sugar” > Give in > binge > artificial or natural sweeteners only > still overeating > can’t fathom why > spends more money on “natural” sweets
5. Cut out “sugar” > Give in > find confirmation bias for the evils of sugar in a diet jihad from a popular dieting method (ie, primal, paleo, low carb, keto etc) > stack up fallacies, dogma, and anecdotal-evidence-disguised-as-irrevocable-truth faster than paleotard chasing down his dinner > be forever closed to evidence-based rationale > preach against sugar for the rest of their lives. Even if their “belief” starts to do them harm, they can never change their opinion
6. Or they spend their life reconciling themselves to the fact that every sweet to pass their mouth is “wrong,” but there’s no way to have cheesecake AND slimmer legs. What a pain. But it’s a reality.
Problem is, we like to have something to blame if our health isn’t going the way we want it to, something to blame that takes the responsibility away from us having to think and apply context and find balance in our own lives. There are things to blame per se when things aren’t going our way.
Problem is, what we think we are doing wrong is usually flawed because we start with assumptions rather than evaluations. And nothing is easier than blaming sugar (and carbs by default) when it comes to unsuccessful dieting.
I posted a quote on my Facebook page the other day. I said:
“How you come to believe is more important than what you believe.” Because it’s the “how” that leads to the “what.”
A lot of us believe that sugar is “bad.” We act on that belief and still don’t get what we want, or maybe we do, but end up with an unsustainable diet method that we are not happy with. Is this belief that sugar is BAD well-founded?
Defining what someone means by bad ranges from the seemingly appropriate to potentially ludicrous.
Here are a few common “reasons” given for sugar being bad.
Some of these are a result of research taken out of context and used to support certain diet styles. Some can be “true” only under specific contexts, which are usually not mentioned:
- Causes inflammation in the body
- Causes insulin resistance and Type II diabetes
- Increases fat storage in the body through insulin resistance
- Is the reason for excess fat storage in the body regardless of caloric intake
- Acts like a drug in your brain so you can’t stop eating it
- A.K.A. physically addicting
- Is poison
- Is the reason for the modern-day obesity epidemic
- Is out to get you
- Is evil
- High-Fructose Corn Syrup and fructose specifically are to blame for a myriad of health problems including the ones above
It’s also rather unclear what is meant by “sugar.” Here are a several foods and food groups that are usually grouped under “sugar.”
- Granulated sugar, powdered sugar
- Honey, agave syrup, maple syrup
- All manner of candies and chocolates
- Cakes, pastries, pies, cookies, frostings
- Pudding, sweet creams, taffies, mousse
- Certain vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes and beets
- High fructose corn syrup
- BBQ sauces, Ketchup, glazes
- Sodas, sparkling juices, dessert wine, certain cocktails
- Fruit juices, both packaged and fresh
- Ice creams
There is this huge vague category of what sugar is, and what it is to blame for. You can make a million correlations and connections between list one and two based on innumerable combinations of circumstances and variables and then add in list 3 below to end up with how someone comes to believe sugar is to blame:
- Education, what and who you have read
- Personal bias
- Personal experience
- Weight gain/loss history
- Metabolism and the fucking (aka adaptation) up there-of
- Psychological components
- Taste buds
- Training and exercise history or goals
- Financial status
- Resentment of your mother
- Medical history
- Childhood scarring
- The lollipops in your gyno’s office
No doubt, plenty of people reading this will “feel” in some way that sugar is the reason (or an overly large part of the reason) for being overweight, or hyperactive, or unhealthy. I am often told: “But when I did this blah blah sugar blah blah, this happened and the world was right again.”
I am not here to argue against that. If something works for you, great. If you believe that sugar is evil, than this blogpost won’t convince you otherwise. And I don’t care about convincing those people. The people I care about are those who like to apply common sense to their lives, regardless of the topic. The others will argue in the comments.
I am here to present what can be known from an evidence-based point of view regarding sugar as a consumable food item and ingredient (up to know at least), so that you can make better, more enjoyable decisions for your personal “known.” And guess what? Education is empowerment. Nothing else. The decisions you make are at the mercy of what you know and can implement successfully. That’s my disclaimer before you read.
I got no problem if someone decides that no sugar crystal shall ever pass their pure lips for the entirety of their days!
I do have a problem with them preaching bad science and bad information that messes up people’s decisions about diet and leaves them frustrated and cupcakeless.
Let’s explore the “why” of sugar damnation and the science behind what sugar is and address the most common questions.
Then, believe what you like. Perhaps you need some safeguards in order to have a healthy diet; perhaps sweet foods are a weakness for you, and you find yourself indulging too often to the point of not reaching your goals for health or body composition. That’s fine. We’ll go over practical considerations at the end.
What is not fine is using sugar as the scapegoat for why you are fat and have no control over your cravings due to lack of basic nutritional education, so you can avoid the facts and blame something convenient.
Here’s a bit of my story about food from the age of 16-24 approximately.
You can skip this part if you like.
Once upon a time, I felt powerless to how good sweet things tasted. Never more so than when I KNEW I should practice some goddamn moderation. The more I knew I shouldn’t feel so out of control with my cravings when they appeared, the less I felt in control. It felt more and more like there was a mysterious pull involving neurons, genetics, Satan, and hormones going on, rather than just a matter of food and will power. My will power kept going on vacation!
The enjoyment I got from eating used to embarrass me. Not because I didn’t like enjoying food, but because I felt guilty with how uncontrollable that enjoyment seemed to be. I alternated between handling my “feelings” for food, and reveling in them. Feeling guilty, indulging, and then feeling resolute again. Sometimes I didn’t mind bingeing because I felt so motivated to return to “being good” when it was over.
There was this state I was supposed to achieve where food was fuel, yet also enjoyable, but nothing was ever really out of control. This Utopia I was envisioning was possible (because fitness people said so!), but how could I get there? I would hold lectures with myself; “It’s JUST food. I should. I should….”
And knowing it was just food made it worse. Sugar, sugar, sugar. I felt justified that it was Carbs’ and Sugar’s fault the more I read popular or well-marketed arguments and advice on diet.
I was just addicted, right? “Sugar turns on the same areas of my brain as drugs.” My taste buds had been corrupted. It wasn’t just the food, it was more. Every argument for chemicals, processing, modern agriculture, big business, huge food corporations and their marketing, insulin resistance, “sugar” genes, etc., took on greater importance in my confused brain.
These arguments shored up my convictions (confirmation bias anyone?) that there was “something” to sugar that was more devious than innocent little peanut butter cups sitting sweetly on the gas station shelf, minding their own business and not trying to TEMPT ME INTO SINNING! If I could just get rid of this “sugar addiction” and these cravings, the world would be right again!
Right and wrong. Good and bad.
Does this sound like you?
I would be good, good, good, and then life would get in the way. Another party. Or ‘cause it was Friday. Or ‘cause after all, “I need moderation.” I’d be strict, feel great for a bit, and then give in and binge or let it all go for a couple of days and feel guilty all over again. How tiresome!
Nowadays, I still like food. A lot! But there’s a difference. I don’t experience cravings, binge cycles, food-guilt, food-avoidance/fear, or mental hunger. Food occupies a VERY small part of my life, whereas it used to be a huge part in the planning, preparation, shopping, worrying, thinking, and denying.
Right now, you may be slightly horrified. Maybe something about your relationship with food has always been normal, or this just sounds worse on paper. Reading this, you might think “this bitch is crazy.” But in talking to SO many women about diet, helping them diet, trying to find them answers that will ease this relationship and let them find peace and progress, it’s not a little thing. Well, it is and it isn’t.
You still live your life, you have your family, your work, your hobbies. You are normal. It’s not like you are sitting in front of a bowl of ice cream looking like Gollum after losing the ring. But there is just this constant struggle. This low-grade hum of “I haven’t solved it” regarding diet that permeates your life. You think more discipline, a better plan, a better “understanding,” more blogs, SOMETHING must work. It will work, it will work. I have to stick to it. That is why you write people like me. That is why you buy diet books. That is why you follow 20 eleven blogs. This is why you become a fanatic about certain diet styles that worked once upon a time for you in some way. You are trying to recapture the magic of “what works.”
But what if you are starting from the wrong assumption in the first place, and always were? Which is why you never kept your results or are becoming more resigned to the fact that “nothing works.”
In fact, ever since I thought about “eating healthy” when I was 16, food was always a bit of a demon on my shoulder right up till a couple of years ago when I first started finding and reading the works of people like Alan Aragon and Lyle McDonald. They laid out the science clearly, and gave me an educational foundation from which to judge information and claims. The two things I consider most important about their approach to examining diet is:
1. You are never told how or what to eat without regard to context. They ask questions and examine the appropriate evidence including research, anecdote, expert advice, and “this is what we know for now.”
2. Context is never ignored! They teach you to ask questions by telling you where an argument has its root, or how to look at it. The right environment is fostered to provide the framework for finding the right answer. Whatever that answer is. The mark of a true scientist is not to hunt for the answer, but hunt for the questions, and let the evidence found provide the answer. Not the other way around!
To quote Lyle,
“You don’t reach your conclusion and then go find the data to prove it; that’s backwards. You gather the data and then develop the model.”
This is what is missing in the heaps of recommendations and advice being given in the fitness industry.
So in that spirit, I want to talk about sugar. Then, as with my carb article, you are free to frolic through the myriad of choices that fit your needs and pick the approach for you. But if in the end, you still decide against regular spoonfuls of Nutella, I shed a tear for you now.
Beyond just being a source of calories, does “sugar” hold some other claim to being a danger in diets? Is there good reason to cut out sugar from your diet? What IS sugar?
As usual, it all starts with definitions. So let’s lay those out clearly.
What is sugar?
Sugar is a carbohydrate. Lyle McDonald explains in this article titled “A Primer on Dietary Carbohydrates.”
“The primary role of carbohydrate in the body is energetic, that is it is broken down in cells to provide energy through a variety of pathways. At the same time, strictly speaking, carbohydrate is not an essential dietary component; that is, you can survive without eating it at all.”
Another term that is sometimes used to describe carbohydrates is saccharides, and there are three primary classes of carbohydrates:
Monosaccharides are the ones we are most interested in regarding the average Joe’s diet. They are often called simple sugars. Mono = one, saccharide = sugar. One sugar. Simple. They are:
- Glucose – blood sugar (which originally comes from food of course)
- Fructose – fruit sugar
- Galactose – milk sugar
- (Sucrose – crystallized table sugar which is a di (2) saccharide of glucose and fructose)
Sound familiar now? Those are names we recognize. But “sugar” = carbohydrate. The words sugar and carbohydrates are often used as if they are separate categories for food, but chemically and nutritionally, they are one and the same.
If you understand the role of carbohydrates in the body, you really can just stop reading here.
As Lyle goes on to explain (which I am paraphrasing), glucose is the form of sugar that floats around in our bloodstream. That is what diabetics measure, or what we refer to when we say “high blood sugar.” Of course the level of sugar in your blood is affected by what you eat. This is related to what people think of when they talk about insulin spiking, glycemic index, and sugar crashing. Those are separate topics for the time being, though.
Naturally ocurring fructose is most commonly consumed from fruit. Roughly half of the sugar in fruit is fructose, and the other half is glucose. In refined sugars, fructose is almost always present with glucose, usually as sucrose (a 50-50 mix of glucose and fructose) or high fructose corn syrup (a nearly even mix, typically 55% fructose and 45% glucose). Fructose is converted to glucose through the liver before being released to the blood and is not usually floating around in the blood on its own (except in some uncommon situations). Galactose is the sugar found in dairy products and is metabolized similarly to fructose.
I ate some potatoes = glucose
I ate some watermelon = fructose converted to glucose
So, sugar is a carbohydrate. This is often confusing when talking about “cutting out sugar” because what does that mean? The most common meaning can range from not eating what are considered desserts, sweets, and added sugars to cutting out bread, cereals, and fruit which are not solely carbohydrate. All of those foods, as primarily carbohydrates, contain either glucose, fructose, or other sugars (like lactose in dairy). What’s funny is when someone says they switched out table sugar for honey or agave syrup. It’s still sugar. The chemical structure will differ depending on the kind of sugar, but to your body, it is a carbohydrate and is processed as such, whether it is organic liquid gold honey from heavenly primal bees or a little white square plopped in your tea and therefore “poison.” When you say you are “cutting out sugar,” what do you mean, and what foods are you cutting out? Think about that first.
Are there “good” sugars and “bad” sugars then? Eating a piece of fruit can’t be the same as eating a lollipop!
No, there are neither good nor bad sugars.
And yes, it is the same thing to your body, BUT with some frame of reference for context.
Both are carbohydrate-rich. But a piece of fruit will also contain fiber and micronutrients. Lollipops do not. From an energy supply perspective, your body doesn’t know the difference and can use both as fuel because they are both carbohydrates.
Fruit = carbohydrate, fiber, micronutrients (including phytonutrients)
Lollipop = carbohydrate
From a health perspective, you cannot argue the chemical structure of the sugars, but the addition to your diet as a whole. Fruit would overwhelmingly win out as the better option for nutrient content. From a fuel perspective, a lollipop would be just as helpful for your afternoon deadlifts.
But come on. Refined or processed sugar can’t be the same as sugar from “natural sources”!
First off, refined sugar (syrup or granulated) is a natural product. It comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. What most people refer to in separating “natural” from “unnatural” sugars is the level of processing. What is conventionally thought of as processed sugars are white sugar, brown sugar (coated in molasses), high fructose corn syrup, glucose syrup, milled sugars (powdered sugar), and invert sugars (syrups blended specifically for baking/products). Unfortunately, other so-called healthier sugars are also usually processed either through heating or extraction to get the sugar. So if that is your basis for unhealthy versus healthy, please reconsider your stance. Agave nectar is commercially produced from several species of the agave plant = still processed. Maple syrup is boiled and reduced from maple sap = processed. Raw honey is unprocessed.
Some sugars endure more processing than others, for sure. But what is a more important question is whether the level of processing affects the nutrient quality of the carbohydrate once ingested.
It does not. Your body processes it as a carbohydrate. Any considerations for health would come from
- Other ingredients
- Presence of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients
- Value to your diet as a whole for satiety, enjoyability, and macro/micro balance, aka “health”
We imagine that additional processing makes a type of sugar more “unhealthy” to the body. Not so. Your body will process a carbohydrate the same way regardless of its origin.
If you are stuffing yourself with Twinkies to the detriment of a balanced diet, well, hey that ain’t balanced now is it? If removing sugar from your life in all forms means you end up a paranoid prude who sees sin in all sugar regardless of science and common sense … see my point?
The most common culprits of being “bad” sugars are high fructose corn syrup and fructose itself. There are two people who stand out to me when reviewing the research and debates on sugar. The reason I appreciate their work is because:
1. They have not built their work on an image that is tied to particular stance on particular diet dogma which they must uphold at the cost of scientific integrity.
2. They evaluate ALL the available literature, not just the studies that support one side or the other.
In order to trust a scientist, doctor, or other professional, we must have reason to believe that they can remain objective, analytical, and can remove personal bias from the discussion as much as possible. That’s hard to do when you are being funded by people with vested interest, or you’re trying to sell something. On the topic of sugar, I turn to James Krieger and Alan Aragon to argue the intricacies of the debate. Below, I have linked their work on the fructose debate. If you have questions regarding the work of Dr. Lustig, Jeff Volek, and Gary Taubes who are the most well-known names demonizing sugar and carbs in general, I invite you to remove any personal bias you have toward one side or the other and just compare the evidence from BOTH sides. Its ok, shhhh, no one will know. You can pretend that you don’t believe anything for a bit, and clear your mind to be objective for a tad. You can be the judge! But a judge hears both sides dispassionately and devoid of emotional investment in the topic. Hard to do, but give it a try.
Should You Be Afraid of Fructose? by James Krieger
Insulin; An Undeserved Bad Reputation by James Krieger (big series, please read this if you are confused about affecting your insulin levels and/or all the warnings about insulin levels)
The Bitter Truth About Fructose Alarmism (classic article!) by Alan Aragon
A Retrospective of the Fructose Alarmism Debate by Alan Aragon
That should get you started!
For the sake of brevity on the subject in this post, I quote Krieger from his article Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Worse Than Regular Sugar?,
“The bottom line is that there is no valid reason for HFCS to be any different than sucrose (table sugar, glucose+fructose) in the way that it affects your body. They are both nearly identical in their composition, containing roughly half fructose and half glucose. They are both nearly identical in the way they are metabolized by your body. There is no practical difference between the two as far as your body is concerned. Now, I’m not saying that you should go out and consume all the HFCS that you want. The point is that there is nothing uniquely “bad” about HFCS compared to regular sugar. HFCS is not uniquely responsible for weight gain as some people would have you believe.”
In a review of the literature on HFCS, Lyle quotes the conclusion from his research review of a 2008 paper titled “Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain’t.”
“Sucrose, HFCS, invert sugar, honey and many fruits and juices deliver the same sugars in the same ratios to the same tissues within the same time frame to the same metabolic pathways. Thus, it makes essentially no metabolic difference which one is used.”
Can sugar (or HFCS specifically) be blamed for the obesity epidemic?
No. Not if you have respect for context (i.e., we are not rats being force-fed unrealistic amounts of fructose for instance). But again, it’s much easier to rage against “sugar” than it is to discuss and implement long-lasting dietary and physical activity changes. Especially when it’s a matter of society and culture as a whole.
Yes, we are living differently. There are different battles to fight regarding health in the modern day world (as opposed to dying from childbirth, smallpox or beheading), and availability of food (very important factor), technology, and the changes in physical demands are different. We are a product of our environments, our century, our society’s mores, rules and regulations and yes, our diets.
YOU still control YOUR life, YOUR shopping, YOUR money, and YOUR household. All opinions are open for YOUR judgment. You can choose what’s best for you. And you can change your mind and grow your awareness.
You are allowed to change your mind.
You are allowed to expand your knowledge.
You are allowed to get results.
Sugar is not at the bottom of this argument! It’s increased calorie consumption and food availability in general along with the psychological components of habit.
This quote from a paper titled “High-fructose corn syrup: everything you wanted to know, but were afraid to ask” in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition broached this topic from the HFCS standpoint and concluded:
“The data presented indicated that HFCS is very similar to sucrose, being about 55% fructose and 45% glucose, and thus, not surprisingly, few metabolic differences were found comparing HFCS and sucrose. That said, HFCS does contribute to added sugars and calories, and those concerned with managing their weight should be concerned about calories from beverages and other foods, regardless of HFCS content.”
It’s not the sugar.
Is sugar ever THE bad guy in a diet?
“As long as you want to blame one thing, there will always be one thing to blame.” Joy Victoria
You can only pinpoint “sugar,” aka excessive carb intake, as an accomplice when respecting overall calorie intake, activity levels, etc. You know the drill.
And yes I just quoted myself. Heh.
Some people choose the method of restrictive heuristics (rules) in order to force themselves into good habits and avoid their weaknesses, like an affinity for sweets and uncontrollable cravings and overeating. The problem with this is not that they can’t work, but that often you are not getting to the root of the problem. And that spells trouble later on. You might not actually find the solution that is sustainable and successful because you started with the wrong assumption. This is not the same as putting restrictive habits in place for a time in order to help yourself (or someone) exhibit better habits as part of the learning process.
The difference is in:
- Using restrictions and safeguards as a part of a plan, not THE plan
- Education on the “why” so the “how” can evolve
Jane has a sweet tooth. Jane decides she just CAN’T have sugar in the house whatsoever. She removes all temptation and swears off all “sweets” including sugar in her tea, oatmeal, and even ketchup. She’s on a sugar fast. She even rejects artificial sweeteners or anything that tastes sweet to “train” her taste buds to not crave sweetness. Jane is trying to lose fat.
Jane does not lose the fat as hoped. She drops a couple of pounds of water weight and but can’t stop thinking about Oreos.
Jane has fallen off the wagon.
Jane recommits to start again.
Jane has no idea how to feed herself correctly with a balanced diet, so her body is constantly “hungry” and food is always a temptation in all forms.
Jane is pretty frustrated and unhappy.
Jane continues to blame sugar.
Jane stays fat.
Jane grabs on to any reason she can find for why she is still fat. The more soothing her mental dissonance and confusion, the better.
Jane needs access to proper information, and hopefully a mindset open to evaluating it.
Maybe I need more experience in order to make this statement, but I’m going to say it anyway (and eat my words if I have to later). I think allowing wide-sweeping statements like, “But it’s healthier so why not let them” just contributes to the same problem we are fighting in the first place.
The “just do this” mentality that does not encourage mindfulness and individual responsibility and thereby lasting change is the horrendous state of “dieting” and “fitness” we find in our societies. Sure, telling someone “no junk food” might make them eat healthier, but it’s not helping them understand anything! Why not do both? Unless we are relentless in helping construct the mindsets, reasoning, and approach to what goes into diet choices, are “heuristic rules” really worth it? Or is that grading on the curve? I am not against telling someone, “You need to cut out junk food,” or “You are not allowed to eat this, this, and this for now because you go overboard.”
But it goes beyond that eventually. Are we ingraining responsible and self-regulated decision-making?
When you stop to think about it, simple solutions like “cutting out sugar” come with a wide range of consequences, some of which we might consider unrelated because they are consequences that are built off the domino effect of one “simple” conclusion we acted upon. Imagine you decide to resist sugar and sweets in all forms. Related actions may be changing your schedule to avoid certain foods or situations so your social life is inhibited substantially, this affects stress levels and your support system, you start buying sugar substitutes but are eating more calories of other “safe” food to compensate for hunger, you experience mood changes that trigger bingeing or guilt-induced cycles of dieting, etc.
Am I making the two sides clear? I am fine with telling someone to cut out something in particular if it’s hindering their progress. But I’ll tell them exactly why. Not that that food “is the problem,” the problem is them with that food. And that can change when their relationship with food changes. If someone has to get all ice cream out of the house because it’s attached to a binge, then do so! But it’s not the ice cream. Alternatively, I might say they need to eat ice-cream, as much as they want, as long as they want and not feel guilty about it. This often break the mental “good/bad, right/wrong” cycle as well. Different strokes.
Often when we are dealing with out diet habits, it’s the psychological, emotional, and mental attachments we have, not the food itself. Want to change a habit? Find out what you associate it with and change that association, either negative or positive. The emotional, mental, circumstantial, or physical connections you’ve built can help strengthen a good habit or weaken a bad one. If social drinking 4-5x a week is sabotaging your fat loss attempts, then you might need to change that association of Fun! Friends! Flirting! you’ve built with drinking.
No, sugar is not THE problem, and no, I will not let you blame it exclusively, no matter how much short-term success it might bring you because of other factors combined.
Is sugar addictive?
There are two distinct factors to this argument that I see.
1. We feel sugar is addictive because there are plenty of circumstantial and correlative behaviors we can link to disordered or “unhealthy” eating practices that revolve around food, and particularly sweet and calorie-dense foods. Anecdotal evidence abounds regarding “food” addiction. Brain-mapping of pleasurable experiences often results in the “sugar turns on the same areas as cocaine” argument. Anything pleasurable does, per se.
Tied to these actions regarding food are feelings of disgust, helplessness, frustration, embarrassment, and guilt, which are strong psychological components that influence action, decision making, and habit. Another factor is the easy access and constant availability of food, which compounds the above. Correlational research has suggested that sugar could be labeled an addictive substance under certain interpretations of the definition of “addictive.” Here, here and here are some examples.
2. BUT Sugar has not been proven to be addictive through direct chemical, biological, or neurochemical processes distinct from psychological, circumstantial, and emotional factors. A sample of the language used when admitting this lack of firm evidence is “food consumption shows similarities to features of other addictive behaviors.” But sugar as a substance does not CAUSE addiction in the scientific definition of addiction like here, for instance.
My conclusion: Cause and effect cannot be separated neatly. From its chemical structure, sugar may not be able to make you “addicted” to it in the same way an actual drug can, but you can most certainly experience addiction-type symptoms resulting from a combination of factors including both physical and psychological components. Addiction is the realm of the mind, it’s about pleasure, desire, restriction etc. so it’s a tough argument especially when you are looking at it from a legal standpoint (like banning sodas for instance; personally I don’t see this as a very effective or logical measure against obesity). It’s not like arguing that sugar makes your pee turn blue, which would be directly measurable.
The debate regarding sugar as addictive is varied because of the very strong anecdotal backing it has from the correlational evidence with the obesity crisis. You can argue that the state of our health is tied to the state of our diet trends. Processed foods, and food availability are a factor. But it is not THE factor. Period.
Broken down into a argument regarding singular food choices, it is entirely unsupportable.
Addiction psychology is another vast topic, and there is no way I can get in-depth into this side of the argument in this post alone (I don’t even feel confident enough to broach it). There is a proclivity to sweet, palatable, and calorie-dense foods when we examine addictive behaviors revolving around food. Should someone limit their intake of “junk” food while trying to lose fat? Perhaps – If it means they have a balanced diet that leads to their goals and provides the nutrients they need.
The most common and generalized definition of “sugar” addiction is exhibited in someone like the fictitious Jane above. Or even like my personal story above. Most women (and I make this distinction for the moment) can sympathize with the desire to eat sweets. Some don’t, but can still overeat other foods. But I think I am safe in saying that chicks love their chocolate (and there is research on that)!
So does an overconsumption (note my use of the word OVERconsumption) of sugar create an “addiction” that is beyond the realm of “this is a food and I am just being a greedy piggy”?
Well, look at that sentence right there. This tastes good! Eating palatable food does trigger the same areas that are lit up in response to other addictive substances that make us feel good. Like drugs. And sex. And adrenaline. And massages. And French kisses. Emotional eating is just that. Emotional.
If your eating habits are disproportionately tied to emotional triggers, sure you can make a case for food/sugar addiction.
But it’s not really the food per se. It’s your brain processing the experience of the food, which is related to the food itself. It’s a feedback loop. And that feedback loop is in your control. I still eat whatever foods I like on a regular basis, but the cycle is different. I understand how my body uses food, and can adjust my intake appropriately for whatever I want and still show ample love to ice cream on a regular basis.
No, sugar is not THE problem.
Questions to ask yourself if you continue to experience sugar cravings, binge cycles, constant “diet” problems, “uncontrollable” hunger, or struggle with fat loss:
1. Am I eating enough? Without regard to hardcore dieting for physique or competition, even in a calorie deficit, you should be feeding your body ENOUGH to avoid rapid changes (even if we like those changes) in weight loss. Constant feelings of hunger or the constant desire to eat can also be a signal that your body is not getting enough nutrients even if you are eating a lot of calories, which leads to the next question…
2. Do I eat enough satiating, nutrient-dense foods in sufficient quantities? Whole foods are harder to overeat.
3. Do I adjust my training to my diet and vice versa? Low calories and intense exercise don’t mix well. Intense exercise and no carbs don’t mix well. Long endurance exercise and low calories don’t mix well.
4. Am I sleeping enough? A lack of sleep can wreak havoc on all bodily functions. Do you work at night?
5. Do I compensate for special occasions with diet, and/or wait for them so I have an excuse? This cycle may be more subtle than you realize, and one that I put here because I am often asked about it. When you only allow yourself certain treats or leeway when you have an “excuse,” you encourage that be-good-and-then-binge-then-start-again cycle. Get far away from that. Completely. There is no cycle! Say it to yourself. One of my clients the other day, who is tracking calories and macros at the moment, said she still enjoys her one day or not tracking. Previously, she considered this a “cheat day.” I said “Great, no problem! But there are no cheat days. There is just life.”
6. If eating sweets makes you want more sweets, avoid regular sweets and eat larger amounts of protein and carb foods first. Fill up! If you find there is an imbalance in the foods you eat and you gravitate toward very palatable, calorie-dense and nutritionally lacking food (aka “junk” food), then maybe you DO need to be stricter and get your body used to eating whole and nutritious food. “Junk” (I use this term loosely) type foods are often less satiating despite being very high in calories, and as mentioned, leave you lacking in certain nutrients.
7. Craving carbs? You can satisfy your body’s desire and need for carbs from sources like rice, potatoes, bread, fruit, beans, grains, etc., and eat larger amounts that are more satisfying and nutritious overall as opposed to smaller, more calorically dense amounts of carbs from desserts, chips, etc. It’s still carbs though, which is why you can have room in your diet for the foods you enjoy. Eating a proper amount of carbs no matter what your diet style can ease cravings and hunger that might trigger binge and guilt cycles that are more damaging in the long run. Find out if you are the type of person that functions better on higher carbs despite whatever a popular diet fad might suggest. Leigh Peele discusses carbs and their role in the body and metabolism in her book Starve Mode (review coming to a post near you). But I liked this quote from Chapter 11: “You need to learn to love what carbs will do for you.”
I leave you with two pics. Clearly causation. Not even correlation. That was sarcastic FYI.
Carbs = lift heavy (that’s me rack pulling 275). Science right there for you.
If this post was helpful and educational for you, I would very much appreciate you sharing and spreading. Thanks for reading!
P.S. Alan Aragon was gracious enough to edit this for me, many thanks to him for his help.