If you think that sugar is the cause of all your health problems, I urge you to try to eat nothing but sugar for an entire day.
You heard me.
I’ve suggested this to hundreds of my clients through my fitness and nutrition coaching at Precision Nutrition. Most are surprised by the idea, and skeptical it will work.
If you actually attempt my challenge you’ll learn one thing: You’ll get sick of sugar. Fast.
I’m seeing a trend where misinformed trainers, diet coaches, and Instagram “professionals” are labelling sugar as evil and pleading with people to remove every gram of the stuff from their lives.
The most extreme among them argue that sugar by itself causes weight gain, diabetes, and may even be as addictive as drugs.
None of these claims are true. For every ounce of sugar you put into your system, you do not gain an ounce of fat. The relationship between sugar and diabetes is far more complex than glucose-in-blood-glucose-way-way-up. And research shows that sugar alone is not addictive.
Sugar by itself is not some demonic force controlling your actions, adding pounds to the scale, or making you feel terrible. It’s just a piece of the puzzle.
So, if sugar alone isn’t addictive, why does it feel that way?
If you feel addicted to foods, and many guys do, it’s likely to highly-processed, highly-engineered, hyper-palatable, hyper-rewarding foods: ice cream, potato chips, french fries, cookies. (I’ve never had a client claim they were addicted to kale).
Sugar is in most indulgent foods, yes, but so are other refined carbohydrates, as well as fat and salt. This triumvirate of nutrients is what drives craving and overeating. The combination has a powerful way of alighting the pleasure centers of our brain.
What’s also interesting about these nutrients is that rarely, if ever, will you find all three together in whole foods.
But it’s not just these nutrients. It’s the entire eating experience. Think of fresh soda versus flat soda or crispy potato chips versus stale chips. Think about it: Have you ever felt like you couldn’t stop eating bags of stale chips or bottles of flat soda? Texture, mouth feel and other specifically engineered characteristics play important roles too.
All of this is complicated, I understand. But that’s exactly the point. You can’t simplify the complex nature of highly-engineered treats into a boilerplate recommendation of “stop eating sugar.”
So what can you do?
First, stop using sugar as your only basis of if a food is healthy or not.
Second, run any food you feel addicted to through these criteria, which are referred to as The Big 5.
1. Is the food calorie-dense? These foods are often high in sugar and/or fat.
2. Is the food intensely flavoured? These foods often have very strong tastes. Think of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or Key Lime Pie Oreos.
3. Is the food immediately delicious? These foods deliver a love-at-first taste experience.
4. Is the food easy to eat? These are often finger foods that are portable and long-lasting, or require minimal chewing.
5. Does the food “melt?” These foods dissolve in your mouth and, thus, are easy to eat quickly and over-consume.
Does the trouble food satisfy many or all of these? Then it might be one worth removing or limiting in your current intake.
The bottom line: Sugar is not a health-promoting compound. Eating a lot of sugar doesn’t make our bodies better, stronger, healthier, or more functional. It doesn’t contain any vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fibre, or offer much of any real physiological benefit for most of us. And it can be easy to over-consume (especially in sweetened drinks and other highly-processed foods).
But it’s not singularly evil either. We’re all allowed some discretionary calories, including sugar.
By Brian St. Pierre, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S.