Sugar. The White Devil. You’ve probably heard a lot recently about how bad sugar is for you. It’s the one true culprit behind America’s obesity epidemic. It’s being secretly hidden in all of your food, because big pharma wants you to be sick, unhealthy, and overweight, so you’ll buy more drugs to treat your ailments. It’s all a big conspiracy, right?
If you’ve been in the health and fitness game for more than a year, you’ll know that the industry goes through phases of blaming one isolated factor to the next. For a long time dietary fat and cholesterol were the bad guys. Then it was carbohydrate’s turn when Atkins and South Beach Diet first hit the scene. After that it was back to fat for a while, right now it’s sugar (which is just a carbohydrate by the way), and if you”re paying attention, you can see that already losing favor in place of animal products, as veganism begins to gain some serious traction with powerful propaganda with films like “The Game Changers.”
You’ve probably heard statements like “Sugar is more addictive than cocaine,” or “Sugar lights up the brain in the same way drugs do.” That can’t be good, right? Well, let’s look at what the science actually says.
Sugar is So Bad For You That Your Body Makes Its Own
At its core, sugar is a very simplified form of carbohydrate. There are different types of sugar like sucrose, fructose and glucose. All of them have different functions in the body, but generally they all do the same thing: provide your body with energy. Although your body is dependent on sugar (specifically glucose) to survive, carbohydrates (and sugars by extension) are not considered “essential” because your body can produce its own.
Things that are considered essential would be essential amino acids like leucine, or essential fatty acids like omega-3. These are substances that your body must have to survive, but cannot produce on its own, so they must be consumed in the diet.
So how does your body make its own sugar (glucose)?
Through a process in the liver called gluconeogenesis. This is a process where your body takes proteins (either ingested or from your muscles themselves) and converts them into glucose for the body. Glucose has many functions in the body, but two big ones are fuel for your brain, and fuel for your muscles (stored sugar in your muscles is known as glycogen).
“But if we can make our own glucose, we don’t need to eat any sugar right?”
This is a common argument I hear from people who fear monger over the dangers of sugar, or are proponents of low carb or ketogenic diets. If you eat a sufficient amount of carbohydrates, it’s true, that you would not need to eat any sugar. After all, all of the carbohydrates you eat get turned into sugar in the body anyway. But what if you don’t eat any sugar or any carbohydrates?
Your body will use proteins to create glucose, and that’s not a great idea.
Remember that term “essential” we just talked about? One of the essential substances for your body are amino acids. There are a bunch of amino acids that are essential and can only be provided to our bodies through food. Many foods contain some of these amino acids, but only one type of food contains all of the amino acids necessary for the human body: Meat.
For millennia human beings were hunters and gatherers. This way of life is what our body is most adapted to as we have only been farming for a short period of time, and our current food environment is even newer with grocery stores, fast food restaurants, food delivery, etc…
Think about life as a hunter and gatherer. Do you think it would be easier to hunt food, or gather it? Likely most of the game we would have eaten would have come from smaller animals like squirrels, rabbits, and other easier to trap or kill animals. Either way we would have likely spent more energy (in other words, calories) eating animals than we would plants. If these animals contained the essential amino acids we needed to survive, and they were harder to acquire, more metabolically expensive to hunt, and also more dangerous to get a hold of, does it make sense that our bodies would then be happy to give up these hard-to-get amino acids to be turned into glucose?
In reality gluconeogensis is likely an evolutionary fail safe to get the human body through harsh winters when there was little vegetation available. During these times we would primarily live off of animals for our sources of calories and nutrition.
Natural Sources of Sugar
Another common argument I hear is that we normally wouldn’t have access to pure sugars if it weren’t for the processed sugars of today. Again we can look to our ancestry to get a good idea of what we normally would be eating. Modern day hunter-gatherer tribes like the Hadza might clue us in on what eating might have looked like prior to modern agriculture. Their diets consist of things like honey (which is pure sugar), and they consume quite a bit of baobab fruit, which is primarily carbohydrate, and of course other types of berries.
If you think of other cultures that had diets heavy in tubers, like potatoes, some tubers to be cooked in order to be consumed, otherwise they would be poisonous. Guess what happens to starchy carbs when you cook them? They begin to break down into sugars. This process then continues as you chew, swallow and digest these foods.
Some are quick to point out that many foods have been bred to be sweeter. This is true. Most of us likely wouldn’t recognize many of the foods we eat today if we spotted them in the wild a few thousand years ago. However that doesn’t mean that these foods contained no sugar at all. Still you might be thinking that perhaps that maybe some sugar is ok, but we probably eat too much?
Again let’s turn to the science:
High Sugar Diet vs Low Sugar Diet for Health and Weight Loss
A study from 1997 aimed to look at the difference between low sugar and high sugar diets. Breaking 40+ women into two groups, one group was fed roughly 85g of sugar per day. The 2nd group was fed about 8g of sugar per day. Both groups consumed a total of about 1,100 calories per day. Over a six week period both groups showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, urinary norepinephrine, and plasma lipids, as well as reported decreases in depression, hunger, negative mood and increases in vigilance and positive mood.
In other words: despite eating copious amounts of sugar, it had no negative effect on their health, well being, or weight loss results.
Some critiques of this study could be that that it is a small sample size (42 participants) and of course the study length was short (6 weeks). This is almost always the issue with nutritional science though as it’s difficult to study people long term because of the high variability of people’s long term diets and eating habits. Unless you can afford to lock people in a lab for a year (and find people willing to do it) it’s difficult to get very long term picture of repeated diet types while eliminating confounding variables.
It is worth noting however, that this “sugar doesn’t matter” hypothesis is confirmed by the thousands of people who follow a flexible dieting strategy (myself included). As you probably know (because I mention it all of the time) I went from 315lbs body weight down to 250lbs body weight, all while eating about 70-100g of sugar per day. Flexible dieting states that it doesn’t matter where your food comes from, as long as you eat a certain amount of calories, protein, carbs and fats, you will see results. So far the science back this, as many studies have been done showing weight loss as well as other improved health markers when in a calorie deficit.
But What About the Cocaine?
Okay so we still haven’t tackled the claim “sugar is more addictive than cocaine.” Where does that idea even come from? Rats.
Two studies are often cited when comparing sugar to cocaine. In one study researched allowed rats to choose sugar-water or cocaine, and in a second study the rats were offered artificially sweetened water (no calories) vs. cocaine. In both instances the rats chose the water more frequently than the cocaine. Sometimes “8 times more” hence the claim that sugar is “8 times more addictive than cocaine,” which is a stretch for several reasons.
- Humans are not rats.
- Animal studies are great for getting us to ask better questions about our own bodies, but they are hardly conclusive in determining human science.
- Do rats have the same propensity for cocaine addiction as humans?
- Drug addiction is not purely physiological/chemical. There are many sociological, economical, and psychological factors that play into addiction. This is why when many soldiers using heroin while deployed in Vietnam did not continue their use once returning back to the United States.
- Sugar is food, cocaine is not
- Is it really surprising that animals chose a food source that their bodies are evolved to crave for survival’s sake?
- The study using the artificial sweetener was supposed to disprove the above critique, however first of all water is still an essential nutrient for mammals, and the big critique everyone has of artificial sweetener is it tricks your body into thinking it’s food, so….Why is anyone surprised that rats thought it was food?
To me I don’t think the word “addiction” is appropriate for a nutrient that sustains our life. We don’t say that we are addicted to water, or addicted to oxygen. So why is it fair to say we are addicted to sugar?
So if Sugar Isn’t Making Us Overweight and Uhealthy…What is?
Excess calories. And the “addiction” that people keep referring to isn’t because of sugar, it’s because of fat and carbohydrates together, which make foods hyper palatable. Think about all of the foods you crave. Are they pure sugar? Unlikely. Here is a list of foods that people often tell us they “can’t say no to”:
- Potato Chips (no sugar in these bad boys)
- Ice Cream
- Fried foods (no sugar)
- Pizza (low sugar)
- Pasta dishes (no sugar)
What do all of those foods have in common? They are combinations of carbohydrates and fats (and sometimes salt as well). So why do we place the blame solely on sugar, when people are rarely seeking out pure sugar foods? No one is eating handfuls of pure table sugar, or drinking maple syrup out of a glass. Think about it…what do we put on salads (which are primarily carbs) to make them more palatable? Fatty salad dressings. What do we put on slices of bread to make them taste better? Butter. What do we put on pasta to make it taste better? Fatty pasta sauces like Alfredo sauce. Even highly processed foods like white bread aren’t hyper palatable until you put something else on them like regular butter or peanut butter.
Smart People Saying Stupid Things
Recently on Reddit.com’s subforum r/loseit (a great community for those losing weight), someone made the claim that it “has been proven that sugar is more addicting than cocaine,” and provided the following link as “evidence” to this claim:
If you want to skip the article it’s essentially an overview of an interview that Dr. Nicole Avena gave to a different publication (The Huffington Post). Dr. Avena claims that pizza is the most addicting food “by far” because of the sugar in the tomato sauce, in which a single slice can have more sugar than a few Oreos.
According to the nutrition label on a package of Oreos, a single Oreo cookie has 6.5gs of sugar in it.
I’ve never thought of pizza as a high sugar food, so I did a quick google search, and it turns out that there are 10 grams of sugar in tomato sauce…The serving size? 1 whole cup. Now, I’m not a master pizza chef, but I think it’s unlikely that there would be a whole cup of tomato sauce on a single slice of pizza. Instead I decided to look up one of America’s most popular pizza chains: Domino’s Pizza. According to their own website a slice of from their extra-large 16″ pizza has 3g of sugar. In other words, 5x less sugar than that of “a few Oreos.”
But you know what else has 3g of sugar in it? A carrot! What do carrots have to do with this you might ask? Well according to Dr. Avena, carrots are one of the least addictive foods. Which I find very interesting because she claims pizza is addictive because of its 3g of sugar, yet carrots are not addictive because…Carrots are for sad people, perhaps?
What to Do About Highly Palatable Foods
Hopefully at this point you’ve realized that sugar specifically is not the devil the media has made it out to be. But eating highly palatable foods that combine carbs and fats can trigger us to overeat. Complete avoidance can be a strategy for some, but no one’s will power can last forever. In the event that you can’t say no (or maybe you actually want to enjoy yourself at a social function), there are some things you can do to help curb cravings.
- Eat a high protein diet
- Protein is shown to be highly satiating, and it’s also more thermogenic than other macros (meaning you burn more calories digesting proteins than other foods)
- Drink lots of water before and during your meals
- Water will help you feel fuller which can help stop you from overeating
- Include lots of fiber in your diet
- A big critique of sugary foods is how much they spike your blood sugar (which can lead to cravings). You know what tempers blood sugar and insulin spikes? FIBER! Eating 20+g of fiber per day was a big part of my weight loss success.
- Lift weights
- Strength training has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity.
- More lean body mass (muscle) is also associated with healthier metabolism.
- Track your food intake
- We highly recommend tracking your macros. We recommend Avatar Nutrition as a food management system (use code KODDY to get 10% off your subscription).
- Ensuring you’re not overeating will mitigate the majority of your food related health issues, even if your diet is high in sugar.
It’s okay to purposely avoid foods that you know trigger you to over eat. It’s not okay to fear monger. Successful dieting and living a healthy lifestyle requires two things in the modern day: Knowledge and strategy. It’s hard to come up with an effective strategy if you’re operating off of incorrect knowledge.