Few topics generate as much controversy and debate as sugar when it comes to health and nutrition. Sugar is one of the many foods that diet culture demonizes and labels as “unhealthy”. We’re often told to avoid sugar even when that means giving up some of our favorite foods – even including fruit (huh?). We sacrifice our pleasure and satisfaction with food when we cut out sugar – so why do we do it? There is so much contradicting nutrition information online which can feel really overwhelming and confusing. Not to mention diet culture’s all-or-nothing thinking often deems food as either good or bad, allowing no room for neutrality or even a middle ground.
In reality, foods should offer us more than just nutrition and energy.
We deserve to enjoy our food and feel pleasure and satisfaction from our food choices. When we assign values to foods, we not only create feelings of shame for ourselves and harm our relationship with food, but we also undermine our intrinsic ability to make choices that honor our bodies and feel good to us. It also introduces doubt that our body doesn’t know what to do with the food we eat, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
With all the conflicting voices, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and confused when it comes to sugar. It leaves us with many questions. Is sugar bad for our health? Do we need to avoid it? Is the sugar in fruit “healthier” than the sugar in baked goods and desserts? Is sugar addictive? Let’s get into it by covering some basic information on sugar.
What is Sugar?
Sugar is simply a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients, along with proteins and fats, that our bodies need to function optimally. In fact, carbohydrates are our body’s preferred source of energy, and glucose (the simplest form of sugar) is crucial to the functioning of our brains and central nervous system. No matter what kind of carbohydrate we eat, our bodies will break it down into glucose molecules. When we ingest carbohydrates, the sugar in our blood (glucose) increases, and in response to this our pancreas releases insulin to regulate it. For someone with diabetes, the regulation of blood sugar is more difficult. This is why people with diabetes have to take insulin to help control their blood sugar levels.
To function well and feel good, we need a certain level of sugar in our blood at all times. So to say that sugar is “unhealthy” or “bad” for us is a complete misunderstanding of what sugar is and how it functions in our bodies. All of the carbohydrates we eat, no matter what food they came from, eventually become glucose and are used for energy and sustaining our most basic functions of living.
Fruits versus Simple Sugar
When we talk about simple sugar, we are most likely talking about sugar that has been extracted from sugar beets or sugar cane. However, just because the sugar is being extracted and refined, that does not make it any different from the sugar in the fruits, vegetables, and grains we eat. In fact, the sugar found in our favorite desserts is exactly the same as the sugar found in apples, sweet potatoes, peas, and more. If there are 20 grams of sugar in a banana and 20 grams of sugar in a cupcake, the only thing your body is going to know is that it has 20 grams of sugar, which will be broken down to glucose for energy. Our bodies don’t know the difference and will use the energy the same no matter where it came from. Glucose is glucose no matter what food it’s in.
The difference between simple sugars and naturally occurring sugars is the other nutrients that are in fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins and antioxidants in addition to glucose. Most importantly, they also contain fiber, which expands in our gut and helps us feel full while it also slows down the digestion and absorption of the food. Without fiber, simple sugars are a quick source of energy and can spike our blood sugar. This is normal and nothing to be scared of because our bodies know how to respond to these spikes in blood sugar (shoutout to our pal insulin!). However, we might experience a quick energy surge without lasting fullness and later experience an energy crash. This is why it’s important to enjoy your foods with simple sugar as part of a meal or a snack that has protein or fiber to help you feel full and satisfied and keep your blood sugar from crashing later. Remember, your body doesn’t know if the protein or fiber is from the same food or just eaten together – it all gets mixed in your stomach anyway! So there is no reason to paint sugar as this evil villain. Keeping gentle nutrition in mind, it’s important to make food choices that honor your health but also are satisfying to your cravings. There’s no need to eliminate sugar or any food type for that matter. All foods can fit and be a part of our food choices every day.
Is Sugar Addictive?
There is no scientific evidence that supports the idea that sugar (or any other food) can be addictive. Eating something enjoyable does increase dopamine, but this also happens when we experience other pleasurable things, such as hugging a loved one, listening to music, or engaging in movement. It’s important to understand that pleasure and addiction are not the same. Also, your body is not going to crave sugar all day every day. If you feel like your need for sweets is uncontrollable it could actually mean that you’re not eating enough in general. When our bodies aren’t getting enough food and therefore not enough energy to sustain daily functions, our brain secretes Neuropeptide Y, which makes us crave the fastest form of energy – glucose! We must be eating enough, choosing meals with balance, and allowing ourselves unconditional permission to all foods to avoid these intense cravings.
Takeaways on Sugar
When it comes to sugar, the most valuable thing we can do for our health is simply to listen to our bodies. When you are eating foods with sugar, take a second to check in with yourself. How does it taste? How does your body feel? Are you honoring both your physical health and your cravings? Remember that food is just food. There is no benefit to ascribing it a value as a “good” or “bad” food. Hopefully, learning a little bit about how our body uses sugar to function has helped you realize that we don’t need to fear sugar. If we are listening to our body and fueling it with balance and variety, there is no need to stress about sugar. Our bodies know what they’re doing, so we can enjoy all our favorite sweet treats without worry!
If you are struggling with your relationship with food or have strict food rules, working with a dietitian can help. Visit the “Make An Appointment” page on our website to set up your first session with one of our dietitians.