Sugar is an increasingly hot topic in the nutrition world ever since we all got sick of the depressing low fat era of the 90s. But sugar doesn’t have to be a scary, forbidden ingredient. It's essential to separate fact from fiction and dispel the eerie myths that have haunted our perceptions of sugar. So, as the season of Reese's Pumpkins, Candy Corn, and Pumpkin Spice Lattes approaches, let's uncover the truth behind three spooky myths about sugar.
Myth 1: Sugar is bad for your health
Here’s the thing about nutrition research: it is not so black and white. And that’s probably part of the reason for the conflicting nutrition headlines that you see in the media. We typically make guesses about nutrition and health through studying people’s diets and health outcomes over time. Much of the nutrition information that we collect is self-reported through surveys and questionnaires about how people eat (which we know is pretty inaccurate!).
Some studies show a correlation between lower sugar intake and lower cardiac events. Not “no” sugar, but “lower” than the other groups. How much sugar is “lower” sugar? In her book Anti Diet, Christy Harrison outlines that it is about the equivalent of eating sweetened foods at every meal and snack PLUS dessert every night! “Lower” sugar is just moderate sugar. This is not to shame anyone for eating “a lot” of sugar but rather to put it into perspective. (P.S. Want to know what also could harm your heart? Eating disorders, stress, weight cycling, and weight stigma to name a few.)
The evidence around sugar and diabetes is inconclusive with no actual, high quality, and consistent evidence that sugar consumption is related to the development of diabetes at all. You can read the systematic review linked below.
Finally, if you zoom out and look at the big picture of “health,” how we eat and move our bodies only accounts for an estimated 20% of our overall health. The rest includes genetics, environment, and social determinants of health. If a person is experiencing weight stigma, racism, poverty, or inadequate health care access, counting the teaspoons of added sugar in their diet is likely irrelevant in comparison.
Myth 2: Sugar is addictive
There is absolutely zero evidence that sugar is addictive. Sugar can feel addictive. But that is only when you restrict, shame yourself for eating it, or give yourself only intermittent access to it. We see this in rodent studies where rats are given a certain amount of sugar daily, then their sugar is taken away for a period of time. As the sugar is reintroduced, the rats eat more sugar than ever before. One might conclude from studies like these that sugar, therefore, must be addictive. But one could also conclude that restricting food intake will only lead to a binge-restrict cycle. If you feel out of control with sugar, it might be worth talking to an anti-diet, ED-informed dietitian to see how you can work to undo some of your own physical and mental restrictions around sugar.
Read more about sugar addiction here: https://marcird.com/sugar-addiction-summary-science/
Myth 3: I have to limit my child’s sugar intake
There are several harmful myths that spin off of this one such as “sugar makes my kids hyperactive” and “sugar will give my kids diabetes.” In reality, when you limit sugar (physical restriction) or even talk about sugar negatively (mental restriction), you put your child at risk of having a difficult relationship with food later in life. Also, “sugar high” is not a concept based on any evidence, nor can we pinpoint a single cause of the very complex development of Type 2 Diabetes. The reality is that kids need carbohydrates in some form. Sugar, whether it comes from a cookie or from an apple, is essential to your child’s growth.
The alternative: Serve sugary foods regularly without any commentary or pressure to only eat one serving. Put candy in your child’s lunch box. Serve brownies as part of your dinner meal. Talk about all foods neutrally. Watch as your child learns to self regulate without any intervention from you.
As we conclude our exploration of these spooky myths about sugar, it's crucial to remember that the relationship between food and our well-being is complex. Sugar, like many other aspects of our diet, should not be a source of fear or anxiety. Instead, it should be embraced as a part of a balanced and enjoyable approach to eating.
Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to nutrition, and what works for one person may not work for another. Whether you prefer to taste the rainbow with a fruit salad or with a bag of Skittles, your body will benefit from the carbohydrates!
Yang Q, Zhang Z, Gregg EW, Flanders WD, Merritt R, Hu FB. Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):516–524. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13563
Michael E. J. Lean, Lisa Te Morenga, Sugar and Type 2 diabetes, British Medical Bulletin, Volume 120, Issue 1, 1 December 2016, Pages 43–53, https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldw037
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