The truth about sugar: it may be sweeter than you think

Bananas and whipped cream, with maple syrup.

Bananas and whipped cream, with maple syrup.

First it was fat, but now sugar consumption is believed to be a major cause of obesity and the metabolic syndrome. But I think people are taking things out of context.

Fear of getting fat is a strong motivator for forming rules about our food; getting over them is the cornerstone for helping patients overcome eating disorders. Whether or not people will admit it to themselves, many who discuss health have an unhealthy relationship with food and lifestyle, displaying traits that patients with eating disorders have, as I’ll discuss in the future. Not all food rules are bad; we need some rules when food industry giants are stocking shelves with frankenfoods, but we have to be rational about weighing the risk to benefit ratio: something difficult to do when a society is increasingly concerned with looking good naked and preserving its youth. For example, an increase in sugar consumption per person since the 1970s has been blamed as a cause of weight gain. These extra calories have purportedly been stored as fat. Since the 1970s however, more people exercise and burn more calories as well due to a fitness boom. Since I started exercising, I ate more calories and more sugar, and I actually lost fat in the process. This n of 1 provides personal valuable insight that helps me guide my decisions and is a valid counterpoint to the idea that sugar promotes obesity.

Whether one wishes to lose fat, avoid fat gain, or just be healthy long term, there are some major unarticulated thoughts about how consuming sugar affects us. See, people with a disease process in their cells, such as insulin resistance and prediabetes, will have different consequences from consuming sugar than someone who is healthy. The cause of obesity isn’t sugar consumption per se, but it’s likely a mix of genetic predispositions and having a positive energy balance. Concentrated doses of sugar in sodas and sweets are more likely to increase the energy balance when consumed than sugars from fruit or honey for instance, increasing the chance of gaining fat mass, the precursor to insulin resistance. Perhaps this also explains why sugar consumption has risen in the past several decades; it’s prepared in tasty and addictive ways. Avoiding sugar seems warranted, but will this take us out of “balance?”

We’re hardwired to love sweets, naturally occurring or not. When we consume addictive combinations of sugar mindlessly, emotionally, and when we aren’t necessarily craving it however, sugar may lead to the negative consequences. What hasn’t been answered yet though, is how this balanced diet affects our physiology: is any processed sugar worse than no sugar? I don’t have the data to answer that question, but my guess is a big and emphatic NO. In fact from my experiences, some of which I’ll highlight further in this post, sugar can be health-promoting, especially for those obsessive health enthusiasts depriving themselves by food rules, while exercising intensely.

My goal here on SBCAH is to promote instinctual eating; instincts however can change based on what we put into our bodies. For some, eating more sugar may increase sugar cravings, and create an unhealthy pattern of sugar consumption. Those in the low-carbohydrate communities experience a reduction in sugar cravings following an elimination from their diet. This may have positive consequences, as foods start to become sweeter, and those previously addicting sugars now taste too sweet. For others, such as myself, consuming more sugar felt very “natural” after three to four years of consuming almost no added sugar of any kind. So how do you know if consuming sugar is right for you? Although there aren’t any studies on this, I believe if we try to follow our instincts with this, being in tune with ourselves, we’ll slowly develop a better grasp. Instead of restricting ourselves, fearing weight gain every time we crave an unhealthy treat, we’ll stop when our bodies tell us to. Although a “balanced” diet or one where we consume everything in “moderation” seems inferior to a strict diet that eliminates all seemingly unhealthy foods, there’s no science showing that, and it won’t ever show that in my opinion. Of course, nothing is ever certain, but here is a way for you to be in better tune with your instincts when it comes to sugar:

  • Reintroduce sugary foods that you once liked, or new foods with sugar that you want to consume
    • My favorite for example is Virgil’s Root Beer (I have no affiliation with the company). The first time I drank it was the first time I had consumed soda since I was a kid. It felt like heaven, and I felt stress melt away instantly. It was available at a local food co-op; I had never consumed it before. It’s pure sugar without any fat, digesting rapidly.
    • The purpose of doing this is to associate the sugar consumption with the response you get from sugar consumption. Initially, if you’ve avoided sugar for a while, you may not even have an instinct to consume it. That doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from it.
  • Pay attention to how you feel
    • How do you feel during and immediately after consuming it? One hour after? A couple?
    • How is your energy affected the next day?
    • How does your brain feel? Mood, cognition, alertness?
    • How is your digestion? Processed junk sugary foods may be more difficult to digest than homemade sweets.

Unfortunately there are no studies I’m aware of looking at how consuming sugar based on an instinctual eating approach affects health (there is no need for these studies anyway). Why isn’t consuming sugar in healthy people seen as a healthy thing? I agree with author Matt Stone that we need a robust and warm metabolism for optimal health, rather than a slower one, and this cannot be achieved by restricting calorie dense foods in our diets. The problems those on extreme diets develop include a low body temperature, low thyroid function, lowered fertility, and other metabolic problems. For these individuals, consuming sugar will likely be health promoting, improving fertility, thyroid, and cognitive function. For the nine to five sedentary man or woman with an office job, the excess sugar may lead to blood glucose imbalances, fatigue, and all the other problems; yet, if the instincts are followed, I have a strong hunch the vast majority, if not every single negative health implication of sugar can be avoided.

The takeaway here is that it’s perfectly fine to consume sugar when you’re hungry, as long as you can follow your instincts with it; something that most human beings do effortlessly. People who believe in “everything in moderation” already know this. These are the people who are less prone to creating unsubstantiated food rules in their life, because their instincts prevent them from doing so. My mother for example, she tells me she will start dieting tomorrow every day, but she enjoys eating her favorite sweets in moderation while staying slim and having no need to go on a restrictive diet. The fact that I need to write about it is unfortunate as well; people have misinterpreted research on sugar consumption, falsely applied it into their life in order to lose weight or be “ripped” and “shredded” and misinformed others about what to eat, causing severe consequences for their health and for others. Much of the research on sugar’s negative health effects have tested unrealistic amounts of sugar. Many people have improved their health by reducing sugar and may have substantiated reasons for doing so, but it’s the unwarranted sugar-phobia based on reductionist research methods that we must take with a grain of salt. Few people do a good job of restricting their sugar, because it just seems so natural and hard-wired, yet people seem to think they have to restrict sugar, salt, and eat “clean” to be healthy.

I reintroduced sugar back into my life almost a year ago, and my thyroid certainly improved since the sumer of 2013, when from my heavy lifting schedule and still strict food rules, I developed mild adrenal fatigue symptoms. I have gained two percentage points of body fat, going from around eleven or so with a six-pack to a still lean body with visible abs, staying pretty weight stable. I look great, and am perfectly happy with myself, but the question is: I gained body fat from consuming sugar, but my thyroid and other symptoms of a low metabolism improved, so what should I do? I can’t answer that question without more lab tests which I don’t need or have access to at the moment: tests to measure my coronary calcium score, visceral body fat, CRP, HbA1c . . . see where I’m going with this? These endless speculations are fun and interesting to ponder, but I doubt they’ll reveal much. I used to eat only fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds on a raw vegan diet but was higher in body fat than I am now. This fear of being fat as I mentioned in the beginning is just such a strong motivator. I shouldn’t even discuss it, because it gets people thinking. “Oh this woman has a great body, she must know what she’s talking about, whereas this dietician is fat and ugly, therefore her diet must be very poor;” I’ve had similar thoughts before as well, but now I’ve realized that it’s just so so complex that I don’t even know how to explain it; being at a lower body fat doesn’t mean greater health. There are forms of obesity where insulin resistance is not present and these individuals live normal healthy lives whereas metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance can affect lean people! Confusing!

But anyway, I try to be in tune with my cravings, consuming sugar when I feel I can handle it. I can tell when I’m full, and not in the mood for as many carbohydrates or sugars, and sometimes I really want starches over sugar. During the first few weeks when I began drinking the root beer I mentioned, I had an entire bottle, 40g of sugar, right before bed and slept more deeply than I had in a long time. I haven’t been able to replicate that experience but it was lovely. I often only drink half of the root beer too, consuming only 20g of sugar because that’s all I want to consume. I feel satiated and don’t form an addiction. Sometimes I go a week without any added sugar as well and have fewer cravings. I often only consume eggs for breakfast, which contains no sugar or carbohydrates, and notice steady blood sugar and energy for the rest of the day. Things are variable! When I decide to go back to my chocolate chip pancake routine, I happily will. This may sound confusing, but when I follow this instinctual pattern, it’s second nature and little to no thinking is involved. I’m hungry, I eat. Remember, it’s high blood sugar that’s dangerous for us, and this is caused by weight gain, especially in the abdominal region. Eating sugar won’t necessarily raise your blood sugar in the long term or cause weight gain if you can get better at following your elusive instincts. Being obsessive about diet is also dangerous, because people never have the full picture and restrict too heavily. If you’re healthy and consume a balanced diet with nutrient dense foods and adequate micronutrients, consuming empty calories when you’re hungry is not likely to cause any health issues and may keep you in “balance;” a term which I will continue to work towards more adequately defining. If you have strict food rules, slowly begin to introduce foods you once feared back into your life and pay close attention to the results; you just may not become obese or feel horrible. It might on the converse satiate you, and put you in a sweeter mood instead.

I know this explanation may be lacking in references, but there aren’t any adequate studies to my knowledge studying sugar composition in the context of a balanced and active lifestyle. If there are I’ll happily read them and revise my hypothesis. Using more of our common sense however is important here on SBCAH because I believe too much reliance on nutrition science is hurting people’s abilities to follow their own hunger cues. Of course, I’m not recommending a diet consisting of the types of processed foods found in the aisles of supermarkets; I think real food is a great foundation, but after that, there is so much variability that it leads me to conclude that it’s okay to eat oreos, to drink some Coke, and do other things that have become curse words among health-minded folk. The lack of holistic evidence also leads me to happily say that as well: that sugar phobia is unfounded, and much more than processed and refined sugar has caused the obesity epidemic. Letting go of dogma and being able to experiment is your friend. Being stuck up about food rules is a path to an enlightened place that probably does not exist. So once again, if your instincts feel inclined to do so, if you are willing to break through mental barriers and food phobia, if you’re active and haven’t eaten much sugar in a while, it may be time for you to get back in touch with that sweet tooth I know you have. Cheers.

10 comments

  1. I have to say ever since i introduced carbs back into my diet after being on low carb,paleo,atkins etc you name it ,my sugar cravings or any kind of craving disappeared. I could finally enjoy dessert without having the feeling i needed more and more and more… that feeling of unfulfillment ,gone! Also when being on a low carb diet and binging on sugar had the effect of being sooooo bloated the day after. However if now i would eat a huge big meal (suggary stuff and go overboard) i dont have the bloated after effect. I do think it has everything to do with rebalancing your system (after all those diets) ,i noticed after eating almost 90perc of my foods cooked and no ice cold drinks, its like my system is digesting properly. Like it doesnt matter much what i put into it, it just digests it with no annoying side effects(bloating, constipation, diarrea,feeling overly tired etc ). My parents in law who enjoy a traditional chinese ‘diet’, consume loads of carbs , and every veggie dish has some sugar in the sauce they cook it in , also their dessert consists most of the time in the form of fruits topped with sugar and/or spices , drinks they consume are non carbonated but do contain sugars…. and they are in AWESOME shape and for their age super energetic and mentally strong! I do have to say that they consume rocksugar or coconutsugar 90perc of the time.

    1. Wow neat story; I’m not sure exactly what that is but I think low carb actually makes us insulin resistant, but not necessarily in the bad way, so when we eat carbs we feel bloated and our blood sugar spikes up higher than if we just ate normally. That’s a really interesting anecdote.

      Those dishes sound neat. Your relatives use coconut sugar or rock sugar in the sauces? I tried cooking orange chicken once and I used honey, it made it sticky but that’s the only experience I have with making Asian sauces.

  2. They use rock sugar mostly in soups ( even in medicinal soups). For stir fries its more coconut sugar. ( garlic,ginger,soy sauce,chinese vinegar, rock salt and coconut sugar – maybe some corn flower and water to thicken the sauce ).They never use honey unless you add it later on after its cooked, since it gets toxic when heated.

    Oh and I bookmarked your blog, very happy you started one! Good luck!

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