Is it really necessary to avoid ALL sugar?
In recent months sugar has been attacked relentlessly by the media. Articles, TV programmes, Youtube interviews and books have all appeared sending out the clear message that sugar is bad for health. And bad in a big way, words such as ‘addictive’, ‘evil’ and ‘toxic’ have featured in many of the headlines. It was the work of Robert Lustig, Professor of Clinical Paediatrics at the University of California, and the publication of his book, Fat Chance, that prompted a lot of the initial media focus but other scientists and leading health experts have since added their voice to the no-sugar movement.
While I think it’s a good thing people are being forced to wake up to the fact that sugar has negative health consequences beyond tooth decay and weight gain, I’m concerned that vilifying one particular food component could lead us into trouble. For the past few decades we’ve been told that saturated fat is the devil in our diet and something we should avoid at all costs if we want to prevent cancer, heart disease and other life-threatening chronic conditions. However, recent research confirms what those with a common-sense dietary approach have been saying for years; that saturated fat, part of our diet for millennia, is not the cause of modern diseases. Turns out it’s pretty good for us in fact.
I’m not saying that time will reveal refined sugar, which certainly hasn’t been a part of our diet for millennia, to be a health food. But I am saying that we shouldn’t take a single food component, consider it in isolation and out of context of the diet as a whole and on that basis label it as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. When I was a child on holiday in Northumberland with my parents and brothers, my dad took us on what turned out to be a very long walk across a bleak stretch of hilly countryside. After a few hours it became apparent that we were lost and as the evening began to draw in mum waited with us kids in a village while dad attempted to find his way back to the car to return to pick us up. The car turned out to be over 10 miles away and after walking all that distance, part of it in darkness; my dad ended his journey completely shattered with blood glucose levels through the floor. By the time he got back to us he was on the verge of fainting. Luckily mum had some Kendal Mint Cake (pure sugar plus peppermint oil) to hand and I remember being astonished at how quickly the cake transformed my dad from a pale, collapsed wreck back to his normal self in what seemed to be a few seconds. In that moment sugar wasn’t bad, it was very, very good.
I can think of other instances when sugar may benefit us. For example, when a favourite pudding brings a surge of joy or when a piece of chocolate comforts a broken heart. Food impacts us on many levels, including the emotional, and the truth is the impact a food has on our body depends not only on the properties of the food, but also the physical and emotional state of the person eating at the precise moment they ingest the food. Unfortunately for scientists this doesn’t make it easy to measure the effects of particular foods in groups of people larger than one.
The difficulty with labelling any food as bad FULL STOP is that people start to become afraid of it. They create tension in their bodies as they fearfully scrutinise ingredient labels, begrudgingly deny themselves a piece of birthday cake, or guiltily treat themselves to a sneaky chocolate. A diet plan that includes doses of guilt, anxiety and fear doesn’t result in greater nourishment, quite the opposite; stress is one of the quickest routes to nutrient depletion. There really is only one way for food to completely and deeply nourish us and that’s if we have a relaxed and fearless attitude to the things we are eating. We should stay open and receptive to the life-enhancing properties of food rather than shutting down in fear at the harm certain foods may cause.
In my mind the best way to regard sugar is not as something evil and toxic but as a powerful pleasure food to be used on occasion. Sugar is a treat food for when you want to share, celebrate or indulge. Use it to enhance your life and bring you joy when it really feels right for your body – if you are in tune with your body’s needs you’ll find that’s more likely to be once a month rather than once a day.
Of course there are times when it’s best to lay off the sugar completely such as during illness or when transitioning to a healthier diet (for tips on how to go cold turkey read this blog post). And it’s also important to realise that it’s the sweet taste we love not necessarily the refined white stuff and that there are healthier alternatives such as honey and molasses that will deliver the sweetness but with added benefits (for more details read this blog post).
So, my advice to you is: embrace the pleasure that sweet foods have to offer and let them enhance your life. Don’t deny yourself or live in fear of sugar but do use it sparingly and carefully, always being very aware of your body’s needs. If you cultivate this balanced attitude you’ll find your diet will become perfectly balanced too, naturally and easily.