When Sugar Might Not Really Be the Problem

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The other night I had the TV on in the background while I was working on a couple of things. The news was on and I wasn’t paying much attention until I heard some sort of food-related fear mongering pitch just before a commercial break (contain your shock). The anchor said something along the lines of, “something you put in your body is taking years off of your life and you may not even realize it”.

All right anchor man, you have my attention… let’s hear it!

The segment started with how many sweets we all eat around the holidays (complete with all of the food porn of sugar and desserts streaming in the background), and how “bad” they are for you. Of course there was a doctor in a suit talking about how sugar is the cause of every chronic disease in existence. Then he went on to say that people think they know how much sugar they consume, but don’t consider foods like grains, pasta, or baked goods. I swear I could have set a timer and beat the over-under on how long it would take him to mention cocaine (too predictable).

At the end of this, I felt so on edge. It makes me upset when I see things like this on major media outlets because I'm pretty sure it only does one thing, and that’s encourage people to feel even more worried about food than they already do, which exacerbates any potential overconsumption issue instead of doing anything to mitigate it.

A brief science lesson on sugar

The word “sugar” is typically used interchangeably with “glucose”, although this can be confusing because most people think of granulated sugar or any other added sweetener when they hear the word sugar (as opposed to glucose, which is a building block of carbohydrates).

Because of this wording blunder, people often make the assumption that the body "doesn’t know the difference” between say, fruit, black beans, and jelly beans. But just because the body breaks down each of these into glucose, does not mean they are all nutritionally the same. The beans and fruit both contain fiber, which slows down digestion and results in a more gradual blood sugar (and subsequent insulin) response. They also both have vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to function optimally, plus phytochemicals/other compounds that totally kick ass when it comes to immunity and inflammation. 

Did you know that glucose is also the brain’s preferred source of fuel? It’s actually the primary energy source for all of our cells which is why very low carbohydrate diets typically don’t go well for active folks (or really anyone who needs to focus during the day).

As humans we really are wired to prefer the taste of sweet foods as a survival mechanism and if you think about it, the first food we are exposed to - breastmilk - is sweet! Preferred level of sweetness can vary by individuals, which is why some of us might identify with having a "sweet tooth" and others prefer salty or savory foods (2). 

I'm actually super interested in this topic because in one of my genetics classes in grad school, we used test strips with different compounds to determine if we preferred sweet foods or bitter foods. Basically if you were a "super taster", the compound on the strip was so bitter you wouldn't be able to stand it, and it's thought that super-tasters prefer sweeter things. If your genotype is different, you wouldn't taste this compound at all and are thought to prefer the taste of bitter foods. I think it's fascinating that our tastes can vary this much. Which do you think you are? 

So is sugar really addictive? 

The literature varies on this, but many studies have shown that while sugar may elicit "addiction-like behaviors" it is not addictive in the sense that the word is generally used. You’ll often read that eating sugar “lights up the same pleasure centers in our brain as drugs”, but we need food to survive so it doesn't make sense to compare the two and makes the science a little harder to interpret. One review that I found also notes that addiction-like behaviors, such as bingeing, only occur when there is intermittent access to sugar (as opposed to unlimited access) (1). This is a great point and drives home that message that when something is "off-limits", you might want it even more. 

I also think there is something to be said about habits. If you condition yourself to have a piece of candy after every meal, you’re probably going to start grabbing for a piece of candy after every meal without even thinking about whether you really want it. Is there any habit like this that you engage with regularly and can re-assess? 

When I posed this question of sugar addiction on Instagram, a few different people mentioned habits in their response noting that coffee, chocolate, exercise and nightly wine could all be classified in this way. You can condition yourself to "want" or "need" something. While learned habits are certainly hard to change, they shouldn't be confused with addiction. 

Conclusion

I think we all know that sugar shouldn't be the foundation of a healthful diet. This isn’t new information, this is just another reason to focus on basing your meals and snacks around whole foods, and getting yourself in the kitchen to cook! You can do this without overthinking things like grams, teaspoons or percent daily calories, in my opinion.

Also remember that your total dietary pattern is more important than any one food. We've learned this time and time again in the case of cholesterol, saturated fat, fat in general... Now sugar is the villain du jour. But even a diet with zero added sugar can be nutritionally lacking. On the other hand, sugar can also make certain things more enjoyable, meaning improved satisfaction of some really awesome-for-you foods. Health benefits are not negated by adding something palatable. 

In my experience, deeming a food “off limits” or "bad" is what promotes those all-consuming thoughts about it that many might mistake with addiction. I am familiar with the concept of moderators vs. abstainers and can appreciate that we aren’t all built in the same way. You might feel like you need to completely avoid something in order to remain in control, and you may be right. For many of you, that probably isn’t the case though. My goal in writing this is to encourage you to really think about your relationship with sugar (or any food) and decide if restriction and/or labeling it "good" or "bad" may actually be the cause of any issues you might be experiencing.

Sources:

1. Westwater ML, Fletcher PC, and Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr. 2016;55(2):S55-S69.

2. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: use of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112:739-758.

3. Rippe JM and Angelopoulos TJ. Relationship between added sugars consumption and chronic disease risk factors: current understanding. Nutrients.2016(8):697.

 

Of course I’m always open to new ideas and ways of thinking, so I would love to hear your thoughts on this! Do you believe in the concept of moderators vs. abstainers and if so, which are you?