Is Sugar Bad For Me?

MMMmmm. Scones. (Get the recipe for these butternut pecan scones with a clementine glaze!)

I’m a dietitian. I don’t believe in diets. I love baking much more than a regular person, and probably turn out, on average, one baked good per week. Well, at least, I used to. Now that I have been living and traveling throughout South America, I don’t have access to an oven and thus, can’t bake. It makes me sad, but there are lots of other good things about the food here.

sugar churrosLike for one, churros. MmmMMMM. And there are lots of other delicious pastries down here, as well as ice cream and cookies.

The truth is, I eat baked goods all the time. They are delicious. They give me pleasure. They make me feel great. I eat them when I want and I never feel out of control around them. When people find out I’m a dietitian, they usually think I only eat kale, or something like that. No no no no no. There is no life without dessert!

My joy of baked goods aside, I have gotten a bit worried lately about the conversation around sugar, and can’t ignore all the headlines touting that its poison, inflammatory, and addictive. And since we just entered 2019, everyone seems to now be embarking on sugar cleanses, or sugar detoxes, or starting some diet like Whole 30, which does “not allow” you to eat sugar.

So what’s the deal with sugar? Should we avoid it like the plague?

Well, it’s certainly true that Americans consume more added sugar than is recommended. But this by NO means indicates that Americans should be cutting sugar out of their diets completely.

As a dietitian, I do not recommend sugar cleanses. Rather, eating sugar can fit in as part of a healthy eating pattern. By allowing yourself to have foods with sugar from time to time, you are better able to eat those foods regularly and intuitively.

I think one of the more lasting effects from sugar cleanses is not even a beneficial physical effect- but rather a negative mental side effect- disordered eating patterns. Often after a restrictive diet or cleanse, people tend to label any of the foods they had cut out as “bad” and feel guilt after eating them.

In fact, if you feel you have a so-called “sugar addiction” it may be because you regularly restrict foods that contain sugar, and feel out of control around them. Another Dietitian that I super admire, Rebecca Scritchfield, explains this beautifully in her blog here. 

While Americans as a whole should focus on consuming more whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits, the truth is that no one food will kill you, it is your overall eating patterns over a long period of time that matter.

And don’t forget my personal favorite vitamin, Vitamin P- for pleasure! Sometimes the stressing about what you are eating can more negatively impact your health rather than if you just were able to enjoy it.


BUT WAIT! Aren’t there are studies showing that sugar is as addictive as cocaine? And studies showing that sugar is super inflammatory? Yep. There are. And guess what? They are really poorly done studies.

My job as a dietitian is to guide you through the wonderful world of food armed with FACTS, not fear. I don’t like people to be scared of any foods. That’s not fun.

So let’s take a look at the science, shall we? Grab your chemistry goggles.

One of the main animal studies most often cited by the news in support of “sugar addiction” found only that “under certain circumstances rats can become sugar dependent.” While many would conclude that this reasoning indicates that sugar can indeed become addictive, this is problematic for a few reasons.

First and most obviously, rats are not humans.


Secondly, these rats were in a particular food environment. As the study states:

“In this animal model, rats are food deprived daily for 12 h, then after a delay of 4 h into their normal circadian-driven active period, they are given 12-h access to a sugar solution and chow. As a result, they learn to drink the sugar solution copiously, especially when it first becomes available each day.”

And as I stated previously, when we are in a deprived state, we are much more likely to binge and feel out of control around foods. Of course, these rats became depend on the sugar. They were food deprived.

Next, when we talk about humans eating sugar, I think we can all agree that most people are not sitting down at the table and repeatedly dipping into the sugar bowl for spoonfuls of pure sugar. (Unless you are my sister Erin, who was found with a spoon and a Ziploc bag of sugar in her bedroom in elementary school, but that’s another story.)

When we eat cookies, cakes, or other foods containing sugar, usually we are getting a whole host of other nutrients in that food product besides sugar, like fat, protein, and fiber. This drastically changes how our body processes and uses the sugar, as well as our satiation, pleasure, and satisfaction.  Unfortunately, one of the commonly cited studies done on humans that claim that sugar is inflammatory had participants drinking 50 grams of pure glucose or fructose dissolved in water. This does not mimic real life circumstances and eating patterns.

sugar donuts

This review done in 2016 looked at both the animal and neuroscience research that has been done on so-called “sugar addiction”. What the researchers found is that “any prevalent addiction-like behaviors, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar.” Essentially, these behaviors only arose when the subjects were deprived of sugar, and were not linked to the actual neurochemical effects on sugar.

In short, we have learned:

  • you may binge on sugar if it is your only source of food and you are starving (especially if you are a rat)
  • if you drink a large cup of sugar solution routinely, your body may not react well

My thoughts?

Enjoy baking at home if you like that. Enjoy dinner parties and desserts with friends. Enjoy going out for ice cream, especially if its a hot summer night. Enjoy going out for a hot cup of coffee and fresh donuts on a Sunday morning. Remember that health is about what you eat and how you move, but its also about finding pleasure and satisfaction in life.

Now excuse me, I’ve got some ice cream to go get.

If you enjoyed this post, let me know by liking or commenting below! In the future, I am also thinking about doing a post about the different types of sugars (like coconut sugar, agave etc), as I see a lot of misinformation about those too. Happy eating!


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