addiction · eating · sports nutrition

Sugar on my tongue: In defence of the sweet stuff

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If your social media newsfeeds include fitness and nutrition sources, you’ve likely read You’ll Stop Eating Sugar After Reading This Post. From the aptly named Babble.com, it went viral, as they say, this past week.

Here’s the short version: Sugar is evil, it will kill you, blah, blah, blah.

Now if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile you know we’re not fans of thinking of some foods as off-limits and we especially hate the language of “good” and “evil” when it comes to food choices. See Tracy’s past post Why Food Is Beyond “Good” and “Evil for a clear articulation of why that’s so.

While there is no doubt we, as a society, are eating too much sugar (the American Heart Association recommends 9.5 teaspoons a day but the average American adult eats 22 and the average American child 32–no Canadian stats close at hand) I’m very leery of approaches to food and nutrition that involve demonizing some foods and banishing  them from our diets altogether. There is a handy info-graphic about sugar and its over-consumption here.

I’m not going to defend sugar or take on the claims from Babble, but I do want to share with you a post from someone who has. Here’s Healthy Urban Kitchen’s response: 25 Things You Should Know About Sugar

I won’t rehash all 25 myths and the myth busting responses but I will include 22 as it’s a personal favourite and it’s a myth that lots of friends believe even though there’s no evidence to support it.

22 Sugar is Affecting Our Kids

Citing a single study about preschoolers and sugary drinks doesn’t support the idea that sugar as part of a balanced diet has any adverse effects on the behavior or cognitive abilities of kids.

a) ‘Although sugar is widely believed by the public to cause hyperactive behavior, this has not been scientifically substantiated. Twelve double-blind, placebo-controlled studies of sugar challenges failed to provide any evidence that sugar ingestion leads to untoward behavior in children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or in normal children. Likewise, none of the studies testing candy or chocolate found any negative effect of these foods on behavior. ‘

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8747098

b) Does sugar make children hyperactive?

http://news.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/hi/health/newsid_7789000/7789412.stm

If you want to understand why parents believe this, look no further than the power of fear-based articles like these being widely shared and the Pygmalion effect: the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform.  When kids are primed to bounce off the walls because they ate sugar, most will take the opportunity to let loose.

Here is an older post on the alleged evils of sugar from one of our favourite websites Go Kaleo.

Sugar Isn’t Evil: A Rebuttal

Go Kaleo: “Sugar is not THE problem. Sugar may be (and probably is, under some circumstances) A problem, one of many. But if we’re going to treat sugar as THE problem, and then ‘solve’ that problem by simply eliminating sugar, we’re missing the forest for the trees. Well, for one tree. A bush really. Inactivity is a bigger problem than sugar, and fixating on sugar gives the inactivity a free pass. To improve metabolic health we really need to address all the problems. Don’t get hung up on Sugar As The Bad Guy. You cheat yourself out of vibrant good health, and miss out on some yummy and perfectly appropriate desserts.”

And while Healthy Urban Kitchen and Go Kaleo sound all polite and reasonable, Melkor (another favourite Facebook fitness and nutrition skeptic) isn’t that restrained.

Melkor writes:

Better headline: You’ll Stop Reading Babble.com After Seeing Them Give Airtime to This Codswallop.
This new anti-sugar article that’s going around is 100% incorrect. It is false, every bit of it, it’s the perfect example of fear-mongering. It is supporting an upcoming documentary called “I Should Be Embarrassed for Believing Shit I Didn’t Research”. I’m writing a rebuttal now…
Photo: This new anti-sugar article that's going around is 100% incorrect. It is false, every bit of it, it's the perfect example of fear-mongering. It is supporting an upcoming documentary called "I Should Be Embarrassed for Believing Shit I Didn't Research".<br /><br />I'm writing a rebuttal now...
Finally, if you’re searching for more science in your assessment of sugar, read Scientific American’s Is Sugar Really Toxic? Sifting through the Evidence.  (tl;dr: it’s a mistake to call sugar ‘toxic’ but we’d be better off eating less of it.)
See also In defence of sugar in The National Post.
No shortage of evil sugar images!
sugar-devil
sugar
evil sugar

27 thoughts on “Sugar on my tongue: In defence of the sweet stuff

  1. Thank you for sharing all the links. I find it ironic that the first thing that popped up as I was reading the babble.com article was a window for recipes featuring maple syrup. Then one of the “related” links at the end of the slideshow is for recipes for 8 cakes made with soda pop. *gigglesnort*

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  2. Interesting that you posted about this. I just started reading _Sweet Poisin Quit Plan_ by David Gillespie. He makes a lot of the claims in the myths list. Whether it’s addictive or poison or not, it’s definitely challenging me these days. If I snack mindlessly, it’s likely to involve a sugar fix.

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    1. I think it’s like wheatbelly and the gluten free craze. I’m skeptical of any of the single villain theories. Mostly it’s really bad science–on the Babble list anyway. True we eat too much sugar but the list of sins attributed to it is mostly hype.

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  3. Thanks for all the links. As a mom, and someone interested in my health, I like to keep up on this stuff, and strangely enough, hadn’t seen that Babble article. But honestly, most of what gets shared across Facebook in visuals like that is more headline-based and less scientific. Like you, I’m all for cutting out sugar when it makes sense and then I’m all for sugar when the timing is right–a few times a day as a treat. That goes for my child too–but I do believe sugar certainly makes my kid hyper and I have seen it first-hand at birthday parties and play dates–regardless of whether it has any scientific backing, intuition tells me we need to watch it w/kids, because of the hyperactivity and issue w/obesity.

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  4. Thanks for sharing the related articles! I agree with the current notion that refined sugar is more of a problem than fat, but I am sick of all this “evil sugar” nonsense – when did people forget the phrase “balanced diet”? It’s refreshing to see a health and fitness articles that don’t try to make everything about right/wrong, good/bad, evil/healthy.

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  5. Absolutely anything can be exaggerated and demon-ized. I’ve read everything from exercise makes you less likely to commit suicide, to weight training may prevent you from getting certain types of cancer, to – sorry, guys – almost everything is a feminist issue. People seem to need to have faith in something, and so turn wheatever they’re currently into, into some form of quasi-religious fanaticism. And that’s when these people lose all credibility, even though there are undeniable elements of truth in what they’re saying.

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  6. The interesting thing I’ve been reflecting upon lately is the question of whether it’s actually harmful (or not) to cut these things out. I mean, no one ever suffered poor health because they didn’t eat sugar (or wheat, for that matter). What’s annoying is when people get all evangelical about it and spread false information. But making these choices is surely permissible and, in some cases, a helpful, easy, and safe strategy for moderating their food intake.

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  7. Sure. Anyone can stop eating whatever they want and what do I care? But my worry with sugar is the bad science around the evils of sugar and that those are offered as reasons.

    Next question: Is cutting out a whole food group a way to moderate your food intake? Sure. But spare me the health talk then and use the language of dieting by another means. That’s what it is.

    There is no one evil food. And on that, we agree.

    Okay, trickier question: Can athletes give up sugar? I think that’s much harder. There are times when the speed with which sugar acts on your body is positively helpful. See http://www.outsideonline.com/fitness/biking/Cycling-Mistake-9.html.

    I think about endurance sports like cycling and bonking too, http://sportsmedicine.about.com/od/Exercise-Metabolism-Energy/a/Bonking-Hitting-The-Wall.htm

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    1. ‘Next question: Is cutting out a whole food group a way to moderate your food intake? Sure. But spare me the health talk then and use the language of dieting by another means. That’s what it is.’

      But sugar isn’t really what I would val a ‘food group,’ right? It’s not an essential part of a good eating plan and it has no nutritional value.

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  8. I like to think that since my great grandmothers lived well into their 90’s with minimal health issues and baked for us constantly that sugar is not the issue. I much prefer to believe that filling our foods full of chemicals to preserve them and to manufacture them more “affordabley” (not sure if that is even a word), is what is wrong with our food. I hate that people demonize real food. Bring on the sugar, the wheat, the gluten, the omega fats! Bring on the real food and we’ll all be a lot happier and less confused about what to eat.

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    1. Agree. I don’t think home baked goods ate the enemy either. Processed foods with added high fructose corn syrup? That’s another matter. Ditto when the paleo and Tim Ferris sorts start demonizing grapes!

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  9. This blog has made consider 2 different things.
    First, and I know for a fact, the medical community often down out lies to people with certain conditions about certain matters out of fear that they won’t be able to handle the truth about certain side effects, will go off their medication, and the results on their health will not be good and perhaps disastrous.
    Having been the “victim” of such lies, I really despise it, as I am (and have been) capable of dealing with the truth and doing all that optimally needs to done (including changes in my life) to acheive optimal or at least excellent results. While I believed the lies, however, I was unable to ascertain all that was optimal for me.
    However, I must admit that most likely, many people simply can’t do what I have done. This is no boast. I am speaking objectively.
    So, and secondly – there is likely a point at which too much unrefined sugar is bad for you. So maybe the only way for some people to ensure they don’t eat too much sugar is to remove it in a substantial way from their diet. I am not at all sure that this decision constitutes a decision to “diet” in the bad sense of that word, as you use it, Sam.
    By the same token, however, perhaps removing all sweets from another person’s diet would lead to failure, as they would rebound and then not control their sweet tooth at all.
    I cannot answer these questions for all people, as I am not at all sure that there is an answer that’s right for all people.
    However, I agree with you completely that demonizing the food and making “bad science” claims is wrong. But it makes me remember the doctor who lied to me, and how perhaps with most of his patients, his lies helped them greatly.
    So – to what extent are all the lies and fanatacism “helpful” to most people? To what extent is the truth helpful to most people? And is any of it really about the truth in the first place? Isn’t alot of all this measured by the degree simply by which people are helped by it in the long run?

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    1. Obviously it’s complicated. And I agree different people respond in different ways to abstaining versus moderation. But here’s the pattern I’ve observed with fitness, nutrition oriented friends. Begin with cutting out all added sugar. Now eat more dried fruit and things sweetened with sugar juice. Living with a diabetic I know there’s no difference in how our body responds to concentrated fruit juice and actual sugar. “Natural” is an alarm bell for me. It’s all chemicals at some level. Okay, so maybe now they’re not losing weight, which is often the goal, not health, and they’re feeling deprived. Not good. Welcome more restrictions. No fruit juice, no concentrated juice, no dried fruit. Still no good. But extra deprived. Now take out fruit, like Tim Ferris. Fruit sugar is the real evil. Next up, sweet vegetables like carrots and still feeling super deprived all the time. It tends to escalate, an ever more stringent diet and series of restrictions. Why not all things in moderation? Dessert once in awhile?

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      1. Complicated I agree. Here was my experience. I cut out refined sugar in all the obvious places for one year — desserts, cookies, candies, chocolates, cereal, and straight sugar (which I had been adding to oatmeal and so forth). I continued to eat fruit and dried fruit, though the dried fruit started to taste too sweet to me after a while. I maintained a weight that I was happy with. Didn’t have cravings for desserts and didn’t miss them. To me, I struck the right balance FOR ME. And after a week or so it wasn’t a lot of work. But then I went to South Africa and ate some of their special donuts called koeksisters almost every day, and then my “sweet tooth” was back in full force and has been ever since. Dessert once in a while, yes. Chocolate every day — not as good FOR ME, but that’s where I end up going. I agree with you (obviously!) about demonizing any food. Thing is, desserts are also the thing I’m most likely to toss out my vegan principles for. And that is also not something I want to be doing. Complicated. Not sure what the right “solution” is. experimenting with things, but yes, weary of the idea that there is a “magic solution.” I should be alert to that little voice inside that is trying to tell me that if I just do THIS, then I’ll have it all figured out!

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      2. And again, a magic solution to what problem exactly? Not being happy with your weight? That’s a whole other ongoing big conversation!

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      3. Kind of–body image issues. Not necessarily having to do with weight but very difficult to extricate completely from the idea of fat loss and weight loss, despite all that I know and believe on a rational level.

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      4. I think we both agree that changing your body doesn’t help with body image issues. Change your mind instead. 🙂 Easier said than done, I know. When you wrote about stepping off the scale you said your weight barely fluctuates–just within a 4 pound range–with no effort. That’s pretty amazing and worth celebrating. Don’t muck with that! And FOR ME, that would be far too many restrictions. I am a vegetarian already–still doing 2 vegan meals a day–I don’t drink. Taking dessert away? No thanks. Enjoying food is part of enjoying life. Celebrating special occasions with friends needs cake! I’m ordering from Veg Out–the vegan chocolate cake–for my 50th. Looking forward to it.

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      5. I suppose for me it’s simpler. Health – that’s it. Do what I need to do to maintain optimal health with no need for any treatment or medicine. I care about nothing else. So maybe then for me, it’s simpler because my goals are simpler.

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  10. And Sam – the “all things in moderation” approach will simply not work for me – not for my stated goal – health. And I really don’t think such an approach would work for diabetics. Unless of course, it’s all that the individual diabetic person is capable of – in which case, hey, that’s them, and we all can only do what we as individuals can do.

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    1. Went to Veg Out on Friday and yes, ordered the cake. Angela had a different cake that was equally good (the lemon layer cake). Of course everything you say is reasonable. I’m enjoying PN LE precisely because it’s about habits and (at least so far) no actual restrictions. I like that approach a lot and am finding it an excellent fit with intuitive eating. In fact, I feel as if I’m practicing intuitive eating even more effectively with their habits. All this is to say that the odds of me ditching sugar are slim.

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