This piece originally appeared on Refinery29.com.
Google the phrase "sugar is" and five suggestions pop up:
Sugar is poison
Sugar is bad
Sugar is a drug
Sugar is toxic
Sugar is killing us
It seems to me that sugar is this year's dietary boogeyman. True, the die-hard anti-gluteneers and a dwindling faction of low-fat zealots are still out there. But, diet fads come in cycles, and all the cool kids are back on the sugar-free bandwagon. Those of us who've spent a lifetime in the diet cycle understand the pull of ingredient-panic, and the virtuous thrill of being able to say, "Oh, I don't eat that anymore. I mean, don't you know it's poison?"
It's not. Sugar is not a toxic substance and, unless you're dealing with a related medical issue, going sugar-free is not a path to perfect health. In fact, it may do far more harm than good. Of course, no one needs to eat more candy, but you don't need a detox diet to tell you that. You just need common sense — and that's what's missing from most conversations about sugar. I interviewed both Dr. David Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, who's written extensively on the issue of sugar in the American diet, as well as my own eating coach, Theresa Kinsella, MS, RD, CDN, who specializes in disordered eating and nutrition therapy. I grilled them both on popular myths about sugar and the truth behind them. You don't need to cleanse, purge, or detox sugar from your body. You just need to treat it with respect.
Sugar isn't a toxin or a drug.
"Absolutely not," Dr. Katz says. "Glucose floats in our bloodstream at all times and without it, we're dead." Evolution built a reward system into our bodies that makes us crave sweet foods because they're a source of energy. "In a natural context, sweet foods fostered survival."
You've likely seen headlines comparing cookies to cocaine (often linked to this student-faculty research project out of Connecticut College), but no study has successfully proven that sugar, or any other food items are comparable to actual drugs. Dr. Katz chalks these claims up to overblown-diet hype. "I’ve treated patients with true drug addictions and I've never seen anything remotely like that related to sugar or any other food ingredient."
Kinsella adds, "it's true that high-sugar foods cause a release of dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter). But, so does listening to music. The amount of dopamine released from a high-sugar food is not the same as heroin or cocaine."
Sugar simply cannot cause the damage or dependency that drug abuse can. However, "it does have addictive elements," Dr. Katz notes. "If you're used to eating lots of sugar, you're going to crave it more."
The only "bad" sugar is added sugar.
Food manufacturers add sugar to just about everything, but you might be surprised to learn how often it's added to savory items. "There’s more added sugar per calorie in most pasta sauces than in ice cream toppings," Dr. Katz points out. "You'll see many potato chips brands with high-fructose corn syrup sprayed on at the end." That's because sweetness is an appetite stimulant, urging you to eat more. Dr. Katz calls this "stealth sugar," because you don't consciously taste it, but it increases the amount you need to eat to feel satisfied.
It's the same principle with added sodium. "Salt is also an appetite stimulant, and many popular breakfast cereals are a more concentrated source of sodium than just about anything in the salty-snack aisle," Dr. Katz says. "If you hide the salt in there with sugar and other flavors, people won’t know it’s there. But, they'll eat more cereal, finish the box faster, and buy more boxes every year."
Think of the pleasure of eating chocolate with popcorn or peanut butter with jam. The flavors compete, neither one fully saturating your palate. Now imagine eating the jam alone. It might still taste good, but how soon would that straight-up sweetness be too much?
That's the sneaky trick of added sugar and salt.
Sugar detox is a classic fad.
"Detox" is just another word for "diet." Language like that, Dr. Katz says, "is willful hyperbole. It's meant to be provocative." The diet and food industries enable and encourage fads like sugar-free because they're incredibly lucrative.
"They love for us to focus on just one ingredient at a time. That way they can invent a whole new inventory of junk food that gets just one thing right. You want low-fat? They'll give you low-fat, highly processed, high-calorie junk food. You want no high-fructose corn syrup? Fine, they'll swap that out for some other sugar and tell you it's better for you," Dr. Katz says. "They're happy to fix that one thing and break six. You'll think it’s virtuous, and they'll laugh at you all the way to the bank."
The element of virtue, Kinsella points out, arises with every diet trend. "Many people assess their worth by their size or what they eat. Right now, sugar is the ultimate 'bad' food for them because that's what they're consistently told."
Eat dessert (if you want).
"People can be physically healthy without consuming sugar," Kinsella says. "However, you cannot have a healthy relationship with food if it is based on rigid rules. It's impossible to learn how to regulate eating when certain foods are off-limits. Furthermore, research shows that normalizing a food with repeated exposure and [practicing] mindful eating can actually help decrease the allure of that food.
"The other problem with restrictive eating rules is that they disconnect you from your body — your hunger and fullness. When you eat consciously, you often realize it doesn't feel good to consume large amounts of high-sugar food. Then you're naturally less likely to overindulge, because you want to feel good."
Dr. Katz agrees that eliminating sugar entirely, "is just not necessary." By simply keeping an eye out for unnecessarily added sugar in basic food items like bread, sauces, and salad dressings, "it’s quite possible to massively reduce your exposure to sugar before you ever even touch a food that is ostensibly sweet."
Cutting out foods you didn't realize have added sugar won't feel rigid or restrictive, but it will have a big impact on your taste buds. "I can't eat most commercial salad dressing because, to me, it tastes like pouring packets of sugar over my salad — and that’s not very appealing."
Both experts agree that enjoying sweets can — and should — be a part of a healthy diet. "Food is a source of pleasure," Dr. Katz notes. "I think it ought to remain [as] such."
Doctor's orders, people.