Swearing off sugar has become almost a religion in the past few years, as sugar has started copping the blame for everything from obesity to autoimmune disease.
There's no doubt that, in general, we're eating (and drinking) far too much sugar. But sugar is nothing new -- humans have been eating it for as long as we've existed as a species, on the whole with no major issues.
That's because sugar, in its natural state, is not the problem -- it comes with other nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals and is generally found in fairly small amounts.
The problem is that, somewhere along the line, we figured out how to extract the sugar from the plants it is naturally present in. This meant that we could enjoy just the delicious sweet stuff without having to worry about dealing with other nutrients getting in the way. And because we also figured out how to have food available to us 24/7, we can now indulge our sweet tooth anytime we like. In fact, thanks to the invention of soft drink, we don't even have to chew anymore -- we can literally just pour sugar straight down our throats.
But is demonising sugar really necessary? Is swearing off it entirely really the best solution or could this actually leave us worse off in the long run?
Here are five reasons why I don't recommend quitting sugar:
A little bit of sugar in your life can be a good thing
The naturally occurring sugar in fruit is packaged up with fibre and antioxidants, while the sugar found in dairy products (lactose) accompanies protein, calcium and other essential vitamins and minerals. These sugars can and should be part of a healthy diet. It's the sugar which is added into foods which we need to be more careful about.
Most 'sugar alternatives' are just sugar
Rice malt syrup, coconut sugar, maple syrup and agave nectar are all just sugar extracted from different plants. Yes, they may have slightly different types of sugar, but ultimately they're all still sugar and too much of them is going to be an issue. Plus, chances are you'll eat more 'sugar-free treats' than you would eat of the standard, sugar-laden variety because you'll be able to kid yourself that they're 'good' for you. So ultimately you end up eating more sugar than you ever have before.
Bans and restrictive diets damage our relationship with food
Ever noticed how as soon as you tell yourself you can't have something, you want it so much more? It's human nature. And the same goes for sugar. Banning food groups not only leads to a fixation with these foods, it also teaches us to ignore the signals our bodies are sending us as we instead put our trust in the latest diet.
Ultimately it's just another fad diet
While it might be pitched as a 'lifestyle change', chances are that, for the majority of people, it's going to be incredibly difficult to stick to a sugar-free diet long term. As with all strict diets, there is usually some initial success -- whether this be weight loss or feeling healthier in general -- but eventually we fall off the wagon and soon end up back at square one, albeit with a new-found obsession with sugar.
Sugar tastes good
Delicious-tasting food is one of the joys of life, and we don't need to actively find ways to remove the joy from our lives. If you genuinely like the taste of sweet things (which, let's face it, the popularity of sugar in the first place and now 'sugar alternatives' proves that most of us do), it shouldn't be something you deny yourself. This isn't a license to go crazy on sugar, it's simply a reminder that 'all or nothing' is not necessarily the best approach. After all, what's life without a bit of chocolate every now and again?
The non-extremists guide to sugar:
- Prioritise fresh, minimally processed foods as close to their natural state as possible, while realising that eating this way is probably not going to be possible all of the time, and that's okay.
- Make sure you have a pretty good idea of what's in the food you're eating. For a start, have a look at the ingredients list on a food label to find out whether it contains added sugar. Added sugars are not distinguished from natural sugars in the nutrition information panel, so you need to actually look at the ingredients in a product to determine if sugar has been added.
- If you're constantly craving sugar, it may be a sign that you're not eating enough nutritious food or not eating the right things. Make sure you have regular meals and that your diet contains plenty of whole-grain carbohydrates, protein and some healthy fats. Being sleep-deprived can also lead to sugar cravings, so make sure you're getting plenty of sleep.
- If you really feel like something sweet, choose something you're going to really enjoy and savour it.
- Instead of being seduced by the temptation of a fad diet, focus on making sustainable changes you can actually stick to -- ones that don't leave you feeling deprived and miserable.
And remember, all food can be part of a healthy diet. Once again, it's just a matter of balance.