An article from babble.com went viral in social media this week. The headline was simple enough, but the sub-headline and web address should win the most dramatic headline of the year award:
‘25 things about sugar that will terrify you: You’ll stop eating sugar after reading this post’
The author starts the article with full disclosure: her family loves sugar. Thus she highlights Americans’ dysfunctional love/hate relationship with food and pleasure. She loves it, she hates it.
So after watching a new documentary, she decided to do her own ‘research’, she ended up writing a fear-based propaganda piece with 25 things about sugar that are simply not true.
The article starts out: “Don’t want to be the weird mom that won’t let her kid have cupcakes? Me either. But these 25 truths I found about sugar may change your mind.”
Yeah, you’ll be weird, but these 25 reasons will terrify you into feeling better about being weird.
1) Sugar is Addictive
I’ve blogged about this and provide the evidence that sugar is not an addictive substance. The people experiencing ‘sugar addiction’ may not be well, they may have an undiagnosed ‘eating addiction’ or some type of eating disorder (Binge Eating Disorder), but the food itself is fine.
Part 1- Is Sugar Addiction Real?
Part 2- Why We Believe Sugar is Evil
Part 3- Science of Sugar Addiction
Part 5- Sugar Addiction & Food Industry
2) Sugar Makes You Fat
No. Excess calories make you fat, not any one particular food or nutrient. Add excess calories and insufficient exercise, and you have a recipe for an overweight nation. Sugar is not uniquely fattening, nor does it cause more belly fat than any other food. Eating more calories than you burn is what increases body fat.
a) “Increased energy intake appears to be more than sufficient to explain weight gain in the US population.”
b) “There are several studies showing that high-sugar diets do not impair weight loss in the context of a low-calorie diet (32, 33), once again confirming the primacy of calorie intake in weight loss.”
c) “Among free living people involving ad libitum diets, intake of free sugars or sugar sweetened beverages is a determinant of body weight. The change in body fatness that occurs with modifying intakes seems to be mediated via changes in energy intakes, since isoenergetic exchange of sugars with other carbohydrates was not associated with weight change.”
3) Sugar Keeps You from Making Healthy Food Choices
Sugar does not magically prevent you from making choices or thinking your thoughts. Sugar only displaces more nutrient-dense foods in the diet if it’s consumed in excess and in the form of industrial foods that are high in calories and low in micronutrients. This doesn’t mean sugar has any power to alter your ability to make choices. Moderation in food choices leaves plenty of room for all nutrients.
4) Sugar is Altering our Kids’ Future
“Modern diets laced with sugars aren’t just making us fat, they’re making our kids fat and sick for life.”
This statement is based on the faulty premise that increased sugar is the primary cause of obesity. Overweight is caused by a complex interaction of many factors, and increased total calorie intake, coupled with decreased physical activity, is a much more likely cause than sugar by itself, as my article will point out without terrifying you.
Sugar is not altering your kid’s future. Ignorance and phobias are more likely to do so. Childhood obesity rates are slowing down; interestingly enough, the fear mongering and paranoia are on the rise.
5) Sugar Is Keeping You Hungry
What does this even mean? Not eating is keeping you hungry. It’s true that drinking large amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages won’t produce the satiety that eating food (especially protein) containing the same amount of calories would, but the problem is not the sugar, it’s not eating enough good food. “You are always hungry” — if you are always hungry, you need to eat more food and stop obsessing over minutiae.
6) Sugar Is Everywhere
Define ‘everywhere’. It’s in our brains, liver and every organ in the body. Is this what you mean by ‘everywhere’?
I think you mean “many industrial foods that you buy at the grocery store, 7-11 or Wal Mart have added sugars” which is not the same thing as ‘everywhere’. Many industrial foods do contain added sugar, but again, the problem is not sugar itself; it’s the practices of industrial food manufacturers. Eat more foods made from ingredients, prepared in your own kitchen, not pre-packaged mixes or convenience foods, and don’t worry about sugar levels. In the diet world, especially in the US, ignorance and phobias are more ‘everywhere’ than anything else.
7) Sugar Feeds Cancer
Ask any vegan! No, seriously, human biology and cancer really is that simple: a fifth grader could explain it. Why haven’t cancer researchers noticed this before?
In reality, all cells use glucose as fuel, not only cancer cells, and that doesn’t mean not eating sugar will starve cancer. The body will make glucose out of any food, or your own body tissues if it’s starving. Cancer researchers are pursuing the evidence that malignant cells utilize sugar differently than normal cells, with the hope of developing treatments based on that, but simply not eating sugar doesn’t affect the growth of cancer cells in the body.
a) “It is apparent that there is insufficient evidence to conclude whether sugar has a role in cancer at any site.”
b) “We found no association between dietary sugars and risk of colorectal or any other major cancer.”
c) “Cancer Feeds on Sugar-Free Diet”
8) Sugar Accompanies Other Things You Don’t Want In Your Body
How does this say anything about sugar? It’s nonsensical to say that because additives like preservatives or colorings are common in industrial foods, there is something wrong with other harmless ingredients like sugar. Want to avoid those additives? Fine; there are many reasons to do so, but that’s not hard to do if you read labels.
Sugar also accompanies other things you DO want in your body. Fruit, for example, contains sugar and a wide range of micronutrients.
Sugar is often consumed in pre-packaged foods, but it’s also found in many natural, whole foods, including fruit and dairy. It’s not something to be feared; rather it’s something to be enjoyed.
9) Sugar Is Making Us Sick
Sugar is not making you sick. It might even support your immune function. Claims that sugar suppresses the immune system are based on one in-vitro study from the 1970s which has not been reproduced. Here is a study showing sugar does not suppress immune function in athletes, rather; it’s supportive:
Orthorexic thoughts on the other hand, absolutely can make you sick by increasing your stress levels and contributing to a chronic stress response or via the nocebo effect. Excessive and chronic stress response DOES suppress immune function. Sugar actually restrains the stress response.
10) Sugar Is Costing Us Money
The article claims, “The U.S. healthcare system spends about $1 trillion yearly fighting the effects of excess sugar consumption. With sugar linked directly to coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes, health care costs related to sugar are exorbitant.”
There’s no credible evidence that sugar in the diet, in moderation, is a cause of disease. It’s a logical fallacy to blame sugar for heart disease and diabetes, and claim the health care costs resulting from those diseases are a result of sugar consumption. This anti-sugar hysteria is the Satanic Panic of the modern era. It is displacing our focus from more important issues.
Five experts respond to new research that added sugars cause cardiovascular disease:
11) Sugar Turns into Belly Fat
“Excess sugar gets turned into belly fat. This can lead to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Not to mention, it looks rather depressing in a bikini.”
The greatest determining factors for belly fat are genetics and stress levels. Elevated stress hormones can favor abdominal fat storage, but calories from sugar don’t get stored in the belly any more easily than calories from other foods.
And what’s with the body shaming comment? ”…depressing in a bikini.” Way to perpetuate the social bias that no one with any belly fat should allow it to be seen. This attitude in and of itself is more damaging than sugar or any food.
12) Sugar Is Causing Your Cravings
False. Avoiding sugar leads to sugar cravings. Here we have a visit from the insulin fairy in the article. Yes, sugar consumption causes insulin to be released, but so does protein. However, eating sugar as part of a balanced diet doesn’t produce the mythical sugar crash and subsequent hunger unless there’s a metabolic problem.
Here are some myths and facts about insulin:
13) Sugar Is Sneaky
No, food manufacturers and marketers are sneaky, but since the author works for General Mills, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for her to address this issue. The author presents the following list of different forms of sugar as proof of sugar’s sneakiness:
“Agave nectar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, crystalline fructose, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, sucrose, and syrup.”
Indeed, all those things are forms of sugar. But they’re also specific and distinct food ingredients, with different qualities. These different names for sugar in different forms don’t mean anything is wrong with sugar.
14) You’re Eating Way Too Much
The article goes on to tell people that one serving of yogurt contains more sugar than the USDA and American Heart Association recommend consuming in one day. This freaking out over one yogurt in your fridge fuels food phobias and orthorexia.
“Although consumption of HFCS in the United States dramatically increased from the early 1970s when it first came into use until about 1999, over the past decade the consumption of HFCS has decreased (30), whereas obesity has increased or remained at the same levels in most population groups (31). Moreover, as HFCS consumption increased in the United States, there was a commensurate, dramatic decrease in the amount of sucrose consumed (30).
Although total caloric sweetener consumption in the United States has increased since 1970, sucrose remains the leading added sugar consumed in the American diet, and the leading source of fructose (32). According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, between 1970 and 2005, sugars and sweeteners available for consumption increased 76 kcal/d per person from 400 kcal to 476 kcal (33). Furthermore, worldwide consumption of sucrose is 9 times as much as HFCS, and there are epidemics of obesity and diabetes in areas where little or no HFCS is available (e.g., Mexico, Australia, and Europe).”
15) Sugar Hides In Your Drinks
“Sugar-sweetened beverages were tested in this study, which found a connection between drinking sugar-sweetened beverages and rates of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.”
This was an analysis of a bunch of studies, not an actual ‘study’. More importantly, this paper shows correlation, not causation. Similarly, most Slayer fans have long hair. This does not mean that listening to Slayer will make your hair grow long.
Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages increases total caloric intake, which can lead to people becoming overweight, and overweight people are more prone to certain diseases such as diabetes. Again, this is the result of excessive calories, not of sugar itself. It’s not ‘hidden’, and it’s no secret that sugar-sweetened drinks can contain significant calories.
16) Sugar Is Ruining Your Teeth
Afraid of teeth problems? Brush your teeth and see your dentist. Bacteria in the mouth feeds off of many things, not just sugar. The article mentions the work of Weston A. Price, which is awesome and valuable, but does not implicate sugar specifically. Eat a varied, balanced diet, and keep your teeth clean. People eating all different kinds of diets have problems with tooth decay, and others have no tooth problems at all. There simply isn’t credible evidence linking moderate sugar consumption to tooth decay.
“The human tooth is in a constant state of mineralization and demineralization. Saliva helps neutralize acid from food to keep demineralization at a minimum. But if the region gets too acidic, then demineralization takes over and rot sets in.”
17) Sugar Contains No Nutritional Value…Whatsoever
“You don’t need sugar. It contains no nutritional value, nutrients, or minerals. It contains only calories.”
OK technically, you don’t need iTunes or ice cream either. Sugar is a nutrient. And as stated above, sugar often naturally accompanies many other nutrients, and in many cases makes nutritious foods more palatable.
18) Sugar Withdrawals Are Real
“Sugar encourages the body to release opioids and dopamine.”
So do many other pleasurable things, like hugging, laughing, petting your dog, eating anything that tastes good, or getting a massage. Sugar “withdrawal” is not anything like drug withdrawal. Ask an addict. The simple fact that a thing stimulates release of opioids and dopamine doesn’t mean that thing is bad, it means our bodies find it pleasurable. Again, here’s our cultural need to vilify pleasure and wallow in the love/hate dichotomy. It is okay eat sugar in moderation, enjoy it, and avoid the drama. Refer to the sugar addiction articles above for more debunking of this made-up problem with sugar.
19) Sugar May Be Giving You Mood Swings
The author claims sugar causes mood/energy swings and adrenal fatigue. Really? First of all, having fluctuating blood sugar levels throughout the day is a normal part of living. Blood sugar swings can cause mood disruptions, but simply eating sugar as part of a balanced diet is not a cause of those swings.
Adrenal fatigue – I was diagnosed with this years back when I knew less than I do now. However, it is not real; it’s a trendy diagnosis with no factual foundation. The people being diagnosed with ‘adrenal fatigue’ are often not well. Frequently, the symptoms actually point to chronic under-eating, or in my case, too much stress and not enough recovery. If you’re moody, chances are you are not eating enough. With articles like this scare piece, it’s no wonder people are constantly on a diet and live in fear of food (well, at least here in the US; the rest of the world knows how to enjoy food).
20) We Use Sugar As a Reward
“Our personal sanctuaries and celebrations have become a celebration of sugar!” says the article. Yes, it’s natural to want to include enjoyable foods in our cultural celebrations. Imma let Michael Pollan handle this one:
“You might also be interested to know that some of the cultures that set their culinary course by the lights of pleasure and habit rather than nutritional science are actually healthier than we are—that is, suffer a lower incidence of diet-related health troubles. […] Americans associated food with health the most and pleasure the least. Asked what comes to mind upon hearing the phrase “chocolate cake,” Americans were more apt to say “guilt,” while the French said “celebration”; “heavy cream” elicited “unhealthy” from Americans, “whipped” from the French. The researchers found that Americans worry more about food and derive less pleasure from eating than people in any other nation they surveyed.”
21) Sugar Isn’t Helping Your Skin
The article cites a study funded by Unilever that shows an association between high blood glucose and “estimating perceived facial age by photographs”. The problem with this (aside from the obvious subjectivity of “perceived” and possible corporate bias of the study) is that eating sugar as part of a balanced diet does not lead to chronically elevated blood glucose.
eats sugar. flawless skin. u mad?
22) Sugar is Affecting Our Kids
Citing a single study about preschoolers and sugary drinks doesn’t support the idea that sugar as part of a balanced diet has any adverse effects on the behavior or cognitive abilities of kids.
a) ‘Although sugar is widely believed by the public to cause hyperactive behavior, this has not been scientifically substantiated. Twelve double-blind, placebo-controlled studies of sugar challenges failed to provide any evidence that sugar ingestion leads to untoward behavior in children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or in normal children. Likewise, none of the studies testing candy or chocolate found any negative effect of these foods on behavior. ‘
b) Does sugar make children hyperactive?
If you want to understand why parents believe this, look no further than the power of fear-based articles like these being widely shared and the Pygmalion effect: the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform. When kids are primed to bounce off the walls because they ate sugar, most will take the opportunity to let loose.
23) You Don’t Actually Need Sugar
24) Sugar is Connected to More Health Concerns Than We Once Imagined
“From depression to Alzheimer’s disease, and food allergies to blood pressure, sugar may do more harm than we ever originally imagined.”
The author links to 75 harmful effects of sugar by Nancy Appleton, author of Lick The Sugar Habit, which is a fantastic title in my opinion.
Note – none of those 75 effects have any evidence to support them. This type of nonsense is why so many Americans fear food and are thoroughly confused, while remaining arrogant. Ask anyone you know to share their thoughts on sugar and witness the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.
25) Sugar Affects your Brain
“In layman’s terms, sugar consumption can lead to a domino effect in the body which can prematurely age the brain.”
So far, the author has managed to tie sugar consumption to most diseases and problems we face in the US. However, when you dig deeper, you’ll find better answers:
“The brain needs to constantly metabolize fuel in order to keep running, most often in the form of glycolysis: the breaking down of stored sugar into useable energy.”
Areas of the brain with higher sugar consumption (or aerobic glycolysis) display gene expression associated with highly neotenous behavior.
“Aerobic glycolysis is a reflection of “neoteny,” or “persistent brain development like the kind that takes place during early childhood. […] The regions we identified as being neotenous are areas of the cortex particularly associated with development of intelligence and learning […] Our results suggest that aerobic glycolysis, or extra fuel consumption, is a marker for regions of the brain that continue to grow and develop in similar ways to the early human brain.”
Sugar-burning in the adult human brain is associated with continued growth, and remodeling
Conclusion: This terrible article, which is promoting an upcoming documentary, ironically called Fed Up, is a perfect example of a viral campaign. These are likely well-intentioned, but they misinform people and foster unnecessary restriction more so than actually help.
The article leads to the author’s blog, where she says she is a ‘primal eater’, a ‘zen rabble rouser’ and a ‘believer in skinny jeans’, yet recipes flashing across her main screen are: gingerbread cookies, chai spinach swirl cookies, chocolate pecan cookie bars. So primal, I forgot to laugh.
Her 5 ingredient Chocolate Pecan Cookie Bars actually include 6 ingredients, but the first ingredient is lulz worthy as it contains about ten sneaky ingredients:
Pillsbury Sugar Cookie Dough: Sugar, Enriched Flour Bleached (wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), Water, Palm Oil, Canola Oil. Contains 2% or less of: Wheat Protein Isolate, Eggs, Baking Powder (baking soda, sodium aluminum phosphate), Hydrogenated Soybean And/or Palm Oil, Salt, Artificial Flavor.
Thus we see one of the greatest problems in the diet world: ignorance of nutritional science while posturing oneself as a Guru. She is also apparently shilling for Betty Crocker/General Mills, a company that sneaks sugar into most of their products. (see # 13)
I’m sure the author is a wonderful mother and a relatively normal person who is woefully misinformed, as most people are on this topic. Most people can’t see the forest for the trees and have this obsessive need to blame everything on one ingredient (usually sugar).
I’m sure most of us agree that most Americans would be better off if they ate less industrial foods, ate more whole foods and respected meal time as a whole. Mistaking all ‘processed foods’ or ‘junk food’ as ‘sugar’ is common and unfortunate. I tend to doubt she is willfully misleading people as Bulletproof Coffee guy does. I don’t know. I do know that this misinformation is not helpful in getting people healthier. It does more to encourage neurotic, orthorexic behaviors than it does to provide proper education on the topic.
So chill out, you can eat sugar and enjoy your diet more than most ‘health conscious’ people. This pleasure and chillaxed attitude can improve your health more than avoiding sugar can.
Babble: To utter a meaningless confusion of words or sounds
Nocebo: a harmless substance that when taken by a patient is associated with harmful effects due to negative expectations or the psychological condition of the patient
Dunning-Kruger Effect: The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs where people fail to adequately assess their level of competence – or specifically, their incompetence – at a task and thus consider themselves much more competent than everyone else. This lack of awareness is attributed to their lower level of competence robbing them of the ability to critically analyse their performance, leading to a significant overestimate themselves. Put more crudely, they’re too stupid to realize they’re stupid.
Note – If you call me out for using a logical fallacy (my photo/anecdote), you have no sense of humor and should go whine somewhere else.