Why you should quit sugar and going sugar-free has certainly been a hot topic of the last several years. One group of ‘health gurus’ will claim that the body needs carbohydrates and that sugar is just one of many that are harmless. And yet another will claim that sugar is killing everyone.
What’s been lost in translation here are several factors when it comes to what sugar and carbohydrates do in the body. But also, the way that different forms of carbohydrates determine that.
Firstly, every single person is different. Their genes are different, their living situations, their lifestyles, and their diets are all different. Some claim that sugar doesn’t affect them adversely at all, while others swear that carbohydrates make them bloated, foggy-headed, and gain weight. And yet others feel they’re chained to it, unable to resist the calling for sugar and unable to quit once they’ve started.
One key puzzle piece here, however, is the fact that the body–regardless of all its differences from person to person–will attempt to adapt to survive. (Which is why people on diets ‘plateau’ at some point.)
So where some end up on low-carb and keto diets with very little carbohydrate and zero sugar and feel great, others can do plant-based or vegan dietary styles with much higher carbohydrate content, and also feel fantastic.
But the constant dispute has revolved around sugar and carbohydrates and whether or not they’re bad for us.
So first and foremost– sugar is a carbohydrate. Our bodies get energy from carbohydrates. There are MANY carbohydrates, however, and the ones that are refined (ie, table sugar, the various millions of ‘renamed sugars’ put on packaged food labels, and refined flours) are the key ones that are dangerous.
So let’s start with the #1 question asked first:
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Is sugar bad for you?
This question gets asked a lot (like a LOT). The past few decades saw seriously flawed studies taking over mainstream media that created a whole wave of ‘low fat’ thinking in terms of weight loss.
The truth is that a group of scientists were paid to say that sugar was actually nutritious, and that sugar consumption was fine and dandy, while fat was bad. TIME magazine has actually followed up on the bad science of it and how it’s affected health globally in the following decades at least twice.
(I could write a dissertation on the flaws in studies and how they’re interpreted by media literally just to have something to write about.)
So back to whether sugar is bad… My nutrition practice is rooted in anti-inflammatory nutrition and lifestyle. And from the hundreds of studies I’ve read through, the evidence is pretty conclusive that sugar is inflammatory. Not only that, it affects the brain (which I’ll touch on in a minute.)
Since inflammation is the root of (and sometimes caused by) chronic conditions and diseases including type 2 diabetes and heart disease, my professional opinion is yes, sugar is bad for you.
I realize this is a controversial topic because, ya know… candy, and cake, and all the things. But also because a huge trend lately is to quit the diet culture.
I think lumping sugar intake into this can be really dangerous because sugar has addictive properties, and the more you eat ‘in moderation’, the more you want.
Ask anyone who has cried themselves to sleep because they feel like sugar controls their life and they’ll confirm that for them, there is no ‘moderation’.
The second reason I disagree with being so lax about it is that kids watch everything you do. And they also believe everything in the media. (Mine somehow believe that Tiktok is gospel, but I digress…)
Kids don’t understand what ‘in moderation’ means. If I’d let mine, they’d have sugary drinks at literally every meal, sugar coated everything for every meal, and then add on sugar for dessert. They don’t know any better.
And programming their brains–especially when they’re not even done developing– to need sugary foods or sugar sweetened beverages for a pick-me-up, or to get some energy is a recipe for disaster once they’re adults. (Not to mention the damage that’s being done to the gut and neurotransmitters during adolescence when they’re flailing around in hormones.)
Kids with high sugar diets also have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Here are some more major points on sugar intake and how it affects the body.
Sugar and Processed Foods
The first point I always make as a nutritionist is that when foods have sugar, fructose, or the thousand-and-one various ‘new names for sugar’ created by food companies, they will also invariably lack fiber.
Fiber is the thing in fruits and vegetables that prevent our body’s sugar-management system from going into overdrive.
Fiber helps blunt the impact of sugars, which is why eating whole fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, is healthy, whereas eating refined sugars and refined grains is not.
What I mean is that the lack of fiber in processed foods, with the addition of extra (added) sugars, normally go hand in hand.
Sugar and Inflammation
Inflammation tends to be lower on the list of concerns for anyone that doesn’t seem to have a condition related to inflammation. This is a huge mistake, as chronic inflammation is the cause of a myriad of diseases, as well as other conditions like depression and anxiety.
And a key contributor to inflammation in the body is sugar. Even after studying the effects of several different types of sugar, multiple medically reviewed studies show that one isn’t necessarily worse than the other: ALL sugars contribute to chronic inflammation.
Sugar and your skin
As a teen, I was told peanut butter could be contributing to my acne, only to read a year or so later that foods don’t affect your skin. As a nutritionist, I now know this couldn’t be further from the truth.
What you put in your body determines how your body functions. And since your skin is the body’s largest organ, this especially holds true for your skin.
Sugar affects aging in the skin by producing advanced glycation end products, which cause a severe slowing of cell turnover rates for collagen and other proteins.
The end result is much faster aging on the skin.
Sugar and hormones
Sugar intake has been connected with infertility and hormone imbalance, especially in women with PCOS. PCOS causes issues regulating sugar and insulin in the body, so it’s already a recommendation for avoiding sugar for those with this diagnosis.
Sugar and aging
Just as sugar produces advanced aging mechanisms for the skin, it also accelerates the same process in all other tissues in the body. This means that your skin will begin to reflect what’s happening to everything inside your body as a result of eating high sugar foods.
Sugar and insulin resistance
Sugar and heart disease
Although dietary saturated fat has been traditionally thought to cause heart disease, studies have shown that sugar is actually a major contributor. This can also be attributed to the relationship with metabolic syndrome, as stated above.
Sugar and high blood pressure
High blood pressure is yet another condition traditionally blamed on excess sodium. It has been found, however, that sugar plays an equal role in high blood pressure.
Sugar and sleep
Although a generally less-researched field, the connection with a high-sugar diet and sleep are steadily mounting. Many don’t realize that there is a connection with your insulin and circadian rhythm. The fluctuations in cortisol and melatonin affect how your body processes insulin while you sleep (much less effectively) which creates a higher blood sugar level during sleep.
If you’re diabetic you probably already pay attention to this as you check your fasting blood sugar levels upon waking. But people that aren’t diagnosed with diabetes or prediabetes should be conscientious of this as well.
High blood sugar levels throughout the day will carry over into our sleep time, creating higher blood sugar while we sleep–even for people that do not have diabetes.
Higher blood sugar levels during sleep have been shown to create less quality sleep and shorter sleep. And the reverse is true as well, less quality and time sleeping creates worse insulin sensitivity in the body–which becomes a vicious cycle.
Sugar and weight gain
I think a big misconception people have when it comes to weight gain is that eliminating sugar means they’ll have to go low carb or keto. Sugar intake has been connected with weight gain, for sure, but there is still a huge gap in understanding where sugar falls when it comes to carbohydrates.
Sugar is a carb. But it’s not the only carb.
If you split carbs into categories, it would fall into the ones you should avoid. Carbs that give energy in a healthy diet include vegetables, fruits (NOT fruit juice, which is straight fructose-another form of sugar), and whole grains.
It’s also really helpful to understand how refined grains behave in the body the same way that sugar does.
Both have been shown to contribute to weight gain. And both can be replaced in a healthy diet with some of the other forms of carbs I just mentioned to round out a fantastic basis for letting your body shed excess weight gain naturally.
Bottom line is that high sugar intake has been connected with weight gain and obesity in numerous studies.
Sugar and the energy rollercoaster
Aside from the conditions listed above, keeping added sugars out of the diet helps keep you on a steady energy plane all day.
This is because when you consistently have too much sugar in your diet, your body will consistently try to balance your blood sugar while using what it can for immediate energy, but will store the rest (either in the liver or as fat–or both).
But when the body gets used to the added sugar as its primary fuel, you get blood sugar spikes, and then crashes a little while later. This is because normally, sugary foods displace complex carbohydrates, and there’s nothing left for energy.
So essentially those meals high in added sugar are causing an energy rollercoaster all day long.
This is, unfortunately, how many of us get sucked into the caffeine habit that can include loads of added sugar in the form of fancy coffee-shop drinks (cough-Starbucks-cough).
Staying on an energy rollercoaster sets the stage for anxiety, depression, and a vicious cycle of loading up on unhealthy foods that give a temporary energy hit just to crash later and go back to the same foods for another boost just to get through the day.
Sugar and depression and anxiety
The connection with sugar intake and depression and anxiety is really two-fold:
- Sugar causes an imbalance of good and bad gut bacteria, which has an affect on mental health. This is because serotonin (the feel good neurotransmitter) is primarily generated in the gut. But it needs appropriate bacteria to help do that. When that bacteria is too low, we don’t get the serotonin we need to feel good and manage anxiety. When the condition stays chronically low, we begin to fall into the realm of depression and anxiety attacks.
- Sugar also affects blood sugar ups and downs (as stated previously in reference to energy levels). But when blood sugar crashes, we get feelings of anxiety and depression as well. This usually triggers a major stress response, causing a nasty cycle of going straight to more sugar to feel better.
Sugar and your brain
Not only is sugar terrible for your body and overall health, but your brain can also be altered by being on sugar as well. The same reward centers in the brain light up in response to sugar and breads that light up in response to drugs like cocaine and heroin. This is from the exaggerated dopamine hit that happens.
Next the brain will create a craving for this type of hit the next time you’re sad, mad, depressed, angry, exhausted, bored, or completely overwhelmed. And as soon as you give in to the craving, the brain records this as the reward that gets you out of the funk you were in. This creates the reward cycle in the brain, and the next time you’re in another funk, it’ll send you to the same sugar and breads over and over again.
The problem is–not only the mega amounts of sugar, bread, and junk that your cravings are calling out for, but also that these are causing damaging rewiring in those brain centers where neurotransmitters operate.
In fact, studies show that pregnant women on a high-fat, high-sugar diet cause the unborn baby to have their brain’s architecture affected so that their neurotransmitters aren’t operating correctly at birth.
What types of sugar should I eliminate?
Refined sugar is absolutely the worst. This includes granulated sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, syrups, and definitely high fructose corn syrup.
It’s important to realize that desserts aren’t always the primary source of sugar intake in the diet. A secondary prime culprit is beverages.
In our day and age, you also have to check that you aren’t buying things you wouldn’t expect to have sugar in them, like spaghetti sauce, flavored yogurt, and ketchup. Your peanut butter sandwich is even probably loaded with sugar.
Which is why it’s really important to be able to read and understand nutrition labels. This will tell you how much sugar is in the food, but also all the other ingredients used.
Sugar-sweetened beverages are also a primary source of sugar, usually high fructose corn syrup. There’s been a lot of buzz about this in the past few years as more studies are connecting high fructose corn syrup with chronic illnesses, including insulin resistance.
This is because high fructose corn syrup has a particular ability to alter insulin signaling. But recent research also shows that it increases the surface area of the gut lining, allowing for even greater intake of calories from the food or drink ingested.
For all these reasons, for your health and especially for reducing weight gain, foods and drinks that contain added sugar (especially high fructose corn syrup) should be avoided as a first-line defense.
What types of sugar are ok?
When it comes to including natural sugars in your diet, the types that are ok are the occasional honey, pure maple syrup, and agave. But don’t forget that these are still sugar.
So when you’re trying to live an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, just know that sugar will exacerbate any inflammation.
Artificial sweeteners are not a good choice when it comes to alternatives for sweetness. Studies have shown that they wreck gut bacteria, they have an effect on blood sugar levels, and they trigger food cravings.
These are primarily found in diet sodas and foods listed as ‘low sugar’, ‘sugar free’, and some keto-type packaged foods.
Noncalorie Natural sweeteners
The non-calorie natural sweeteners that are recommended are stevia, monk fruit, and sugar alcohols like erythritol (if you can tolerate them–sometimes they’re hard on the stomach).
Fruit is always a confusing topic when it comes to eliminating added sugar since sugars found naturally in fruit aren’t inherently bad. But it depends on the format. Here’s how to know what’s what:
- Fresh fruit is ok (you should still aim for a much higher ratio of vegetables to fruit) as it contains lots of fiber and is on the list of resistant starchy foods. Examples are fresh berries and other low-glycemic fruits.
- Cooked fruit isn’t as good an option as the heat starts breaking down those starches into sugars.
- Fruit juice should be avoided. All fiber and resistant starches have been removed, and what’s left is straight fructose. (Fruit juice is in many juice drinks, and often the ‘cocktail’ version of fruit juices has even more sugar added into the final product.)
More and more studies and data are opening our eyes to the harmful effects of high sugar diets and how global health has suffered for the bad data presented decades ago touting sugar as a health food.
This has created an epidemic of related conditions, including many people becoming dependent or addicted to sugar. This can make it feel nearly hopeless to truly quit sugar and get away from the incessant cravings that usually lead to binges.
My advice is to start with a sugar detox to get off added sugars altogether and see how good you feel every day with energy from healthy fuel and a healthy lifestyle instead!
Take the quiz to see which type of sugar detox you need based on your sugar addiction probability! 👇