Sugar gets a lot of hate. Commentary can range from “trying to cut back” to comparing it to Crystal Meth and calling in an addiction. It’s publicized as a pretty black and white issue (don’t eat it) with very little grey area. If you do eat it, you’re led to believe you’re making a bad choice and negatively impacting your health. Some would even say you run the risk of developing an addiction, but what the addiction model doesn’t account for is restrictive or restrained eating. If you never let yourself eat sugar, or make yourself feel guilty when you do, it’s easy to start feeling preoccupied or obsessed with it. You may start to feel out of control with your ability to self-moderate, which says more about your lack of practice with moderation than a lack of willpower, self-control or development of addiction.
Nutritionally speaking, I suppose one could argue that your body doesn’t NEED sugar (it does need carbohydrates though, and too many people throw a blanket over all carbs when they aim to cut back on added sugars). But I think that’s exactly what gets us into trouble. Instead of focusing on overall meal patterns, it’s super common to blame one food or food ingredient. It feels easier to do so, and so tempting and alluring to buy into the gimmick of “just quit eating X and you’ll magically feel amazing”. I mean, they even promise you a cheat meal! (read: binge)
So I’m not going to argue that eating sugar is necessary from a physical standpoint. What I am going to argue is that learning how to live in the grey with food is probably the most productive thing you could do to improve your relationship with food AND overall nutrition quality. Yes, it’s true. Instead of the all-or-nothing thinking that creates extremes in food intake (restriction breeds rebellion), you instead consume food in balance, variety and moderation which is the key to adequate nutrition. While you might think one could achieve that without eating sugar, that has not been my experience. When you have multiple food rules, you actually run the risk of inadequate nutrient intake, and a lot of emotional distress over following the rules perfectly.
If you’re a long-time reader of the blog, you know by now that I’ve had a pretty painful, fearful and damaging relationship with food. If you yourself have struggled to overcome disordered eating, you know how absolutely terrifying it is to go against all the food rules you have collected. I cannot emphasize enough how important it has been for me to make peace with ALL foods (have full permission to eat ANYTHING) as a way to put me back in charge of my food choices. I make the choice, not the food. I can absolutely say I feel better when I eat sugar, or at least have the permission to do so. I can eat it when I want it, not eat it when I don’t want it, and stop eating when I have had enough because I know I can have it again when I want it. Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat naturally brings unconditional permission to stop eating. I don’t worry about foods that contain sugar, about adding sweeteners to foods, and I include a much greater variety of foods as I focus on overall food patterns rather than one food or meal. The very act of giving myself unconditional permission to eat has helped me respond to intuitive signals more effectively. This means that all my body processes function better, given I am eating for the intent to feel full, satisfied and energized - mentally and physically. With that as your goal, you’ll find your balance. I think you'll find that feeling sick after eating has more to do with ignoring intuitive signals (and what you body is truly hungry for) rather than the food itself. While we may assume the opposite, rules about how, when and what to eat can keep us from eating to feel our best.
So here’s to sugar. You aren’t addicted, you can be trusted, you do not lack willpower and it isn't about self-control. I think you’ll find as you open your mind to the bigger picture of health and wellness with less judgment about food, sugar will become a non-issue. Aim to live in the grey!
Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD