Is sugar bad? Oh boy. Here we go again. I’m about to go against mainstream (and alternative) diet dogma and tell you why I think sugar is essential to good health. You heard me right, essential.
Now before you going throwing darts at me… or worse yet, linking every sort of “study” and post on the evils of sugar let’s make sure we’re on the same page first, okay? Okay.
I believe in real food.
Period. I believe that food should not be full of ingredients I can’t pronounce, artificial junk, unnatural preservatives, etc. I don’t buy “processed” foods. I don’t drink soda. I do not support the unbelievable amounts of GMO high fructose corn syrup that is lurking about in everything from juice to soy sauce.
So when I say sugar is not bad, but essential, to good health, I’m talking about the right kind of sugar as part of a real foods diet. I’m not trying to promote a candy fest or soda pop binge. And while I also believe that even all natural sugars are not necessarily created equal, here is just a short sampling of the foods I think are good for human consumption:
- Ripe fruit
- Sweet roots vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and sweet potatoes
- Raw honey
- Pure maple syrup (Grade B, please)
- Grains (properly prepared or freshly ground)
- Whole sugars like coconut sugar, sucanat/rapadura, and date sugar
If, by chance, you are currently consuming lots of processed foods, candy, soda, and other “junk food” please don’t take this post as a “keep at it! Eat more sugar!” Nope. Sorry. Life and good health are about balance. And unfortunately our Standard American Diet is anything but balanced.
Rather, this article is for those who, in their quest to find peak optimal health, venture off into extremes not realizing how dangerous those extremes can be. If you believe sugar is the root of all health problems, that carbs are bad, and that you need to avoid one or both… this article is for you.
(For the record, I’ve probably read more books, articles, and studies about the evils of sugar than just about anyone. Also, if you have a legitimate allergy to any of these foods, by all means DON’T eat it.)
My sugar story
When I was around 24 I was stuck in the middle of a “healthy” Standard American Diet that was full of processed foods like frozen dinners, wheat thins, and low-fat everything. Despite my misgivings, I really was trying to be healthy. And lose weight. And if you were to ask me “is sugar bad?” I would have said “of course.”
In fact during this time in my life, I decided to cut sugar from my diet.
In many ways I’m glad I wasn’t really aware of what “cutting sugar” meant. To me it equated avoiding obvious offenders like cookies, ice cream (sigh), and any other “treats.” (Which, considering they types of sugars I was eating was a good thing). I still ate plenty of processed grains and fruit. By many die-hard dieters this was hardly a no sugar success story.
When I made the switch to real food a couple years later I learned a lot. I ate a variety of food, including natural sugars like raw honey. I lost a lot of weight without trying. I had lots of energy. I felt great. (You can read more about my healthy journey here).
My baby body and confrontation with sugar
After giving birth to my daughter two years ago my body changed (as it’s prone to do when you grow and birth a human)—nothing too drastic, but I was eager to get back to my pre-pregnancy-real-food-awesomeness again.
I was already committed to real food. So the next logical step, according to the real foodies, was to cut out the sugar. I even bought several books on the evils of sugar as a means to motivate me to ditch the “toxic” stuff for good. (Seriously.)
I started consuming less grains. I gave up my homemade ice cream (sniff). And after reading that fruit can even be bad, I tried eating less of that too. Eventually the baby weight came off (although, I’m guessing it would have anyway… it takes time, y’all.) But I had never felt so stressed, tired, and worn down. I blamed motherhood (which definitely deserves plenty of the blame).
Your body is speaking. Are you listening?
There I was: worn out, tired, and stressed beyond anything I have felt physically in my whole life. And I was craving the sweet stuff. Yet, almost every nutritional advice and dietary dogma out there was telling me to not listen to those cravings.
Sugar is usually viewed as some sinful, devilish character that sits on our shoulder tempting us. We love to find a “Food Villain” for which we can blame all our problems, disease, obesity, and other issues. A few decades ago that villain was fat. And we can all see how well that turned out.
Now the villain is sugar. We are told to fight our urges. Just say no. And ignore or abolish any signal or craving our body has for it.
But the theory goes against everything I have come to believe about the body.
Our body is amazingly intelligent.
Our body’s signals are critically important.
Our body is NOT bent on destroying its own well being.
Assuming you are eating real food and avoiding synthetic food-like substances, I believe we can trust our bodies. Once we disconnect from the addictive nature of modified foods that are designed to keep us eating, we can (if we are patient) once again trust that our body’s cravings are critical signals for optimal health.
Why sugar is essential
Your body. My body. Every body is made is up of trillions of cells which are the building blocks for the tissues and organs of our body. In other words: Our cell health is critical to overall health. If the cells are nourished we have the right foundation for a nourished body.
The cell’s ability to produce energy is critical.
Every minute of every day, cells must convert nutrients from the foods we eat into usable energy to power growth, repair, reproduction and movement. – I Didn’t Quit Sugar, p. 12
And guess what? Sugar, in the form of glucose, is the preferred and most efficient fuel source.
When our cells don’t have enough glucose to do their job they find alternative means by which to get their energy, particularly through either Lipolysis (fat breakdown) and Gluconeogenesis (new sugar creation from our own body tissue).
These processes require the release of adrenaline and cortisol—our “fight or flight” hormonal responses.
This is why so many people have sensations of clarity, easy weight loss, and boundless energy when turning to a no-sugar or low-carb diet. Their bodies are thriving off of adrenaline and cortisol. And while these positive effects can last many months or longer, ultimately the body is not designed to live off of these stress hormones.
The long term results are bad, guys.
In fact, ditching sugar can destroy metabolism and lead to a weakened immune system, poor digestion, impaired sexual/reproductive function, and accelerated aging.
If you cut out all sugars, your body would soon begin to fail. Your brain especially relies on sugar, or glucose, to function. If you don’t have enough sugar in your bloodstream, you can become confused, forgetful, or even lapse into a coma (source)
So what do you think? Is sugar bad or not?
During that first year as I was meandering through the world of motherhood, my body was under so much stress. From the anxiety of dealing with a newborn, to the sleepless nights (that lasted 19 months!), and hormonal changes from pregnancy/nursing my body was literally crying out for something to help it in its stressed state.
Taking away my body’s preferred and most easily accessible fuel source only made it more stressed. And your body cannot assimilate the nutrients it needs when it’s always in a stressed state… no matter how nutritious your diet is.
Thankfully, I started paying attention to some of the renegade health writers like Matt Stone who were fighting against the anti-sugar dictators. I was paying attention, but not sure how to handle these ideas with my still-newly-found-commitment to real food.
But isn’t sugar toxic? Doesn’t it cause diabetes? Doesn’t it make you fat?… I couldn’t come to peace with all the conflicting information.
I was in the middle of a battle. A war between all the nutritional dogma that I had consumed throughout my life and the simple fact that I felt good when I consumed natural sugars as part of a balanced diet.
Yeah, I felt good after eating my homemade ice cream. I felt good when I added lots of fresh fruit to my dinner plate. I felt good starting my day off with fresh squeezed orange juice.
My body was crying for sugar.
Before giving into my sugar cravings my sleep was at an all time low, despite the fact that my little girl was finally sleeping through the night. I was always cold. Always peeing. And I knew my health was not where it should be considering how “real” my diet was.
So I started listening to my body. I added sugar back in. Real sugar. Raw honey, maple syrup, rapadura, and lots of ice cream. (Yes, lots.)
That simple energy source provided my body with what it needed to regulate my cortisol levels, help me (finally) get some sleep, and have more energy than I have had in a year. Sugar improved my health, folks. Nothing else changed. It was the sugar.
It’s not the sugar, folks.
One last thing. Just because I know some of you must be wondering how this information can be legitimate in light of the recent New York Time’s article, “It’s the sugar, folks,” I give you this:
Start with these two articles that show how poorly Bittman “translated” the original study:
Or just read the study that the article was based on yourself. Even the authors claim that further investigation is warranted. (Read it here)
Let’s stop trying to find a villain in real food. Let’s remember that health is about balance, moderation, and an integrative approach to considers more than just the food we eat. Let’s stop blaming fat, sugar, or any other “one” thing. Let’s get on the side of real food, please.
So what do you think? Is sugar bad? Or are you willing to listen to your body?