On the heels of the anti-carb movement is the notion that sugar is bad and to feel good, look good, lose weight, and be healthy, you just need to cut out sugar! Advocates of a sugar-free diet proclaim that people need to remove table sugar, sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup, condiments, dressing, refined flour, soft drinks, sweets, dairy products, and often fruits such as bananas and apples.
I don’t agree! Here’s some reasons why…
#1. I love food. All food. And…”cutting out” a particular food “for the sake of health” would actually compromise health.
Health is more than just a physical state of being or defined by the mass of your body tissue. For any individual – especially a health provider – who believes otherwise, consider spending some time working with individuals struggling with all types of eating disorders. I have worked with plenty of people who have a healthy weight and BMI, and are far from “healthy” or able to enjoy life.
Mental and psychological well-being matters for overall health too and enjoying a variety of nutritious and enjoyable food supports this important aspect of health.
Yes, it’s true. Food is fuel and what we eat matters! As such, I’m a huge proponent of cooking at home (most of the time), and enjoying a variety of wholesome and nutrient-dense foods.
…But, there’s more to food and eating, such as food memories; heirloom recipes; favorite foods; celebrations; holidays; social events – many of which happen to include sugar. I prefer not to minimize the fact that there’s something special about food and how it brings us together. Whether it’s religious, ethnic, holiday or family traditions, food has a meaningful role.
For those who play the “I just enjoy these foods occasionally-card,” but you still believe the forbidden food is “bad”, or that your health will suffer because of eating these foods, that’s just a recipe for shame, guilt, stress, and anxiety. Research, Research, and more research demonstrate that people who worry about food are more likely to get caught in a cycle of restrict, eat, overeat, guilt, repent, and repeat; and, consequently gain more weight in the long run.
Most important is that some of my everyday “favorite foods,” that I’d rather not give up, contain natural or added sugar (yogurt, milk, fruit, bread, crackers), and happen to provide important nutrients (calcium, vitamin D, B vitamins, fiber, etc). Consumed in moderation, these foods make it easy to combine nutrition with convenience, affordability – and pleasure.
#2. I love to cook and bake – and sugar happens to be important ingredient for a quality food product.
I learned the hard way when fat was the “evil dietary villain”, that removing fat from cooking (i.e. replacing oil in muffins with applesauce; cream cheese in cheesecake with strained yogurt, or half-and-half with nonfat evaporated skim milk) resulted in poor food quality. At the time, somehow I “believed” that the food was “good”. But, when I was really honest with myself, the truth was that the food and these cooking methods sucked!
The sugar-free diet explosion and food substitutions are no different. When boredom sets in after removing all the offending foods, efforts to replace sugar in recipes with Stevia or artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols; or, the example of making a pancake with nothing more than an egg, some banana and a little cinnamon is, well, just history repeating itself.
Yes, sugar is valued (or demonized) for it’s sweet taste, but it also performs many other essential functions in cookies, cakes, and other baked goods. In addition to adding flavor, sugar affects the texture of food by creating tenderness and keeping baking goods soft and moist, while adding color and crunch in a recipe.
I’ve worked with folks who’ve tried to bake a so-called “healthy” dessert, i.e. leaving out sugar, and what resulted was a poor quality product that triggered a binge. No, this doesn’t happen to everyone, but the point is that when your experience with a particular food (taste, mouthfeel, aroma) is less than your expectations (or what your brain remembers), there can be an impulsion to keep eating hoping that eating more will provide the satisfaction you desired.
#3. I’ve been doing this “nutrition thing” for more than a couple decades and have helped many people over this time achieve their weight and health goals without needing to follow this particular “rule” and become worried or obsessed about sugar in food. I’m sensitive to the fact that we all have a unique relationship with food, so perhaps “cutting out sugar” seems like the right thing for some folks. It just seems a bit extreme and with a disrespect for the potential long term consequences of restricting or forbidding sugar – or any particular food.
I do not subscribe to the “eat like me, look like me” style of nutrition counseling, so I suppose my habits and relationship with food shouldn’t matter. Perhaps my clients, family, and myself are just “an anomaly.” I’ve actually heard that before. On the other hand, there’s a chance that all these folks, including myself, share many of the the same busy and stressful life and food challenges that everyone else does, and are evidence that it is possible to trust your body, trust your instincts with food, use non-food ways to manage stress and emotions and ultimately find balance with all foods so that you can enjoy pleasurable foods, and still “be healthy.”
#4. It’s called “Balance, Variety and Moderation.”
I know. Not a popular (nor sexy) headline. The idea that the sugar industry is out to kill us (per the reputable Dr. Oz) and headlines claiming that “Sugar is as addictive as cocaine and heroine” gets more views, followers and sells more.
For those readers who believe any of that, you may want to read “No, Sugar isn’t the new heroin” by Traci Mann, researcher from the University of Minnesota.
With respect and without judgement, the truth is that some people struggle with over-consumption – for many different reasons. Some unknowingly, while others recognize an intense and persistent draw to highly palatable foods for reward, comfort, etc. The reality is that some folks really do struggle with over-consuming sugar/food; alcohol (and I’m not referring to those with a known alcohol addiction); they may also overspend; over-commit; over-exercise – hopefully you get the idea.
In the case of over-eating – or when sugar feels like an “addiction,” making healthy and sustainable behavior change is possible. When a particular food (i.e. highly palatable foods such as sugar-laden goodies) take up residency as the go-to for nutrition, then we need to work on changing the “mental channel.”
This may mean “taking a break” from a trigger food or foods to create a safe and healthy eating environment that focuses on nutrient-dense foods. But, this is NOT
…a 10, 20, or 30- day detox.
…the idea that XYZ food (that contains sugar) is fatal and should be forbidden
…believing fear based messages about XYZ food.
…giving into the idea that “you are a flawed person” and someone else can “eat whatever they want.”
#5. Plain and simple, it’s disordered eating to have forbidden foods.
Disordered eating has become normalized in our culture – but that doesn’t make it right or healthy. It is well established that restrictive eating, eliminating foods/food groups, and dieting is an environmental trigger for pathological eating problems and all types of eating disorders.
Not everyone has an eating disorder and eating disorders are a complex mental illness, but restriction and worrying about food is certainly an important risk factor that shouldn’t be disregarded or minimized when making or receiving nutrition recommendations.
The statistics speak for themselves. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting and that 20-25% of those individuals develop eating disorders. Furthermore, hospitalizations involving eating disorders have increased for all age groups, but hospitalizations for patients aged 45-65 have increased the most, by 88 percent, from 1999 to 2009.
When one considers the common emotional and behavioral symptoms of an eating disorder, it’s worth questioning the “normalization” of dieting or food restricting – “for the sake of health”.
Common Emotional and Behavioral Symptoms of an Eating Disorder:
– In general, behaviors and attitudes that indicate that weight loss, dieting, and control of food are becoming primary concerns
– Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, carbohydrates, fat grams, and dieting
– Refusal to eat certain foods, progressing to restrictions against whole categories of food (e.g., no carbohydrates, etc.)
– Appears uncomfortable eating around others
– Food rituals (e.g. eats only a particular food or food group [e.g. condiments], excessive chewing, doesn’t allow foods to touch)
– Skipping meals or taking small portions of food at regular meals
– Any new practices with food or fad diets, including cutting out entire food groups (no sugar, no carbs, no dairy, vegetarianism/veganism)
– Withdrawal from usual friends and activities
– Frequent dieting
– Extreme concern with body size and shape
– Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws in appearance
– Extreme mood swings
Source: National Eating Disorders Association
Finally, an individual’s relationship with food, eating and weight is a very personal and even intimate topic.
Nutrition is a science that interprets the interaction of nutrients in food in relation to growth, development, health and disease in an organism. But, overall health is more than just how nutrients function in our body.
Enjoying a variety of pleasurable foods and understanding how the “joy of eating” feeds our soul and makes life interesting, adventuresome and fun is something I would encourage anyone to not miss out on!