What do you think of when you hear this word? Do you have pleasant memories of melted ice cream running down your hands on a hot summer day? Or does it bring you back to that time you were face deep into a chocolate cake at 2am?
Sugar is a source of immense pleasure and immense pain for many. Sugar is delicious – it’s hard to argue that. I have so many fond memories in my childhood of getting ice cream after a long day or treating myself to some cinnamon and sugar pretzels at the mall with my friends.
But as I got older, sugar surrounded itself with thoughts of guilt and shame. Oh, you’re gonna have another cookie? Didn’t you have cake yesterday? You didn’t even exercise today! Sugar makes you fat, you know? And so on, and so on.
So, when did this switch of mentality change? When did sugar transform from a source of joy to a source of shame?
I can’t pinpoint the exact time I began to feel negatively about sugar, but I can pretty confidently tell you the source – it was all around me.
It was that conversation I overheard about how sugar causes obesity or seeing a “sugar-free” “weight loss” product in the store. Maybe it was a friend saying her mom cut out sugar and lost 10 lbs. I even remember learning about the soda tax in New York in school.
But, with all the negative talk, there was also negative talk about the negative talk. I remember mocking those “low-fat” “sugar-free” foods with my dad. “No-flavor”, he would say. I even remember my uncle talking about a friend who died from being on a diet (looking back on this now, I’m sure this is an exaggeration, but nevertheless).
I got lots of conflicting information. It felt like it was a choice – good tasting, sweet delicious sugar or obesity… maybe even death?
But, me being an insecure, teenage girl, I was terrified of being “fat”, so, I saw sugar as the devil and avoided the hell out of it… but, was this the right choice?
How much sugar is recommended by the experts?
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest no more than 10% of your daily calories to come from added sugars. For someone who consumes 2000 calories per day, this is about 50 grams of sugar. (source)
To understand this recommendation, we need to understand the difference between naturally-occurring and added sugar.
Naturally occurring sugars are found in the highest quantities in two food categories: fruits and dairy. But, depending on the type of fruit and form of dairy, the amount of sugar varies.
For example, 1 cup of blueberries has 15 grams of sugar, while 1 cup of mango has 21 grams of sugar. 1 cup of milk has about 5 grams of sugar, while 1 oz of cheese has 1 grams of sugar (the sugar in milk, lactose, is greatly reduced during the cheese making process). (source) (source) (source) (source)
Added sugars are the sugars not naturally found in the food. For example, if you are buying strawberry jam, the added sugars would be the white sugar you add when making the jam, not the sugar already found in the berries.
Some examples of commonly used added sugars (you will see these on the ingredients list) are white granulated sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, molasse and nectars. (source)
What led to the recommendation on sugar?
So you may be thinking, how did they come to this conclusion? Why 10% of my daily calories?
Well, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is updated every 5 years by a team of PHDs, MPHs, and RDs (aka nutrition experts). They look at the biggest health problems facing America (in 2015 this was chronic disease, obesity, and food insecurity) and create dietary guidelines based on current up-to-date research.
If you read through the advisory reports where they explain why they made the recommendations they made, their reasoning behind limiting added sugars is not because added sugar is the direct cause of obesity or chronic disease, but instead because they are “empty calories” or not nutrient dense. (source)
#1: High calories, low satisfaction
So, really, there are two reasonings behind why reduction of added sugars will lead to better health outcomes. First, added sugar provides a good amount of calories, but it doesn’t fill you up.
Let’s say you drink a jumbo soda. In one hour, you are likely to be hungry. But if you have a salad with grains, chicken, and vegetables (aka fat, fiber and protein), you’re likely to last for 4 hours.
Even if the drink and salad are equal in calories this remains true, because soda provides solely easily digestible carbohydrates in the form of sugar. There are no fats, proteins, or fibers to slow down digestion and keep you fuller for longer.
#2: No room for nutrient dense foods
The second reasoning is that if you fill up on a lot of added sugars, you aren’t getting any nutrients besides carbohydrates.
Now, this isn’t saying carbohydrates are bad, because they are quite the opposite. They are the most efficient source of energy. But, you also need a variety of other nutrients. You need fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals. All which are severely lacking from plain ole added sugar. So, the more of your diet that is filled with nutrient-poor sugar, the less room there is for nutrient-dense foods.
Is it ok to eat naturally-occurring sugar?
There is a reason that they use the term “added sugar” and not just “sugar”. Because added sugar is sugar by itself. It doesn’t have a significant amount of other nutrients. On the other hand, naturally-occurring sugar is always a part of a whole.
Yes, a banana contains sugar, but it also contains fiber, potassium, vitamins, you name it. The fiber in fruit and the fat and protein in milk tends to slow the digestion a bit as well so you don’t get full an hour afterwards (though eating one piece of fruit isn’t likely to carry you until dinner).
Also, you don’t have to worry about fruit or milk taking a good portion of your calories, because they are providing nutrients, especially those that are typically low in an American diet such as calcium and potassium. So, all in all, don’t be scared of those naturally-occuring sugars!
Correlation vs. Causation
It’s super important to understand the difference between correlation and causation. It would be one thing if there were a ton of studies showing that increased added sugar intake, regardless of how many calories you’re eating, was linked to obesity. But this just isn’t the case.
Added sugar is associated with obesity and chronic disease because they contribute calories that are not satisfying, meaning you will need more calories in a day to keep you full and satisfied. Added sugar and obesity and correlated; added sugar does not cause obesity.
What are the benefits of sugar?
Yes, you read that right. Now we’re going to talk about the benefits of sugar.
First, you can probably guess this one, but sugar is beneficial if you are looking to gain weight. This is for the same reason mentioned above. Sugar doesn’t fill you up, so you are able to easily consume more calories throughout the day.
Second, sugar is quickly digested in the body, meaning it can be used as energy right away. This is super convenient for athletes who need to fuel up shortly before a workout or game (this applies to anyone who works out by the way, not just pro or collegiate athletes).
It’s easy and tasty, plus a handful of gummy worms are low in fiber, fat, and protein, so they won’t make your stomach uncomfortable. This is especially great for those with pre-game jitters or “can’t” eat before working out.
Having some added sugars after working out can also be beneficial because your body can replete those glycogen (storage form of carbohydrates) stores real fast! (source)
So, should I avoid sugar or what?
We already went over naturally-occurring sugars – please don’t restrict those! But as for added sugars, this is a loaded question. It really comes down to the individual.
Trying to gain weight? No, don’t restrict
An athlete? No, don’t restrict
History of eating disorder/disordered eating? PLEASE no, don’t restrict
When it comes to the average person, cutting back on added sugars is probably going to be beneficial for your health. I have some tips and strategies to cut back on sugar in this article if you want some suggestions.
Now, when I say cutting back on added sugars, I don’t mean cut them out, I mean lessening your portion or choosing lower sugar options. In my experience, those who completely cut out sugar tend to have intense cravings and binge on sugary treats. This brings me to the next point:
If you have problems with binge eating or uncontrollable cravings for sugar, that is another problem entirely. I would not suggest you restrict your added sugar intake. I would instead suggest you look into intuitive eating and seek out a dietitian!
I sum it up, sugar is not the enemy! And there is a lot you need to consider before cutting back. Remember – sugar itself is not bad. Even though it is associated with obesity and chronic disease, it is not their cause.
Though cutting back on adding sugars will likely lead to health benefits through a possible reduction in overall calories or an increase in nutrient dense foods as it’s replacement, it could also lead to reduced performance for athletes, relapse for those with histories of eating disorders, and a bad relationship with food.
If you want to take the step and reduce added sugar intake, do it in a sustainable way to reduce these repercussions, such as those mentioned in this article.
If you liked this article and want to spread the word about added sugars, be sure to share with your friends and family. Comment below or contact me directly with any comments or concerns you have!