What’s Worse: Sugar or the Fear of It?

teaspoon of sugarGuest blogger: Narmin Virani, RD, LDN, Clinical Dietitian, UMass Memorial Weight Center

Pop quiz: Fill the blank with the best answer: Food is_________.

  1. Nutrition
  2. Fuel
  3. Comfort
  4. Celebration
  5. A link to our culture and roots
  6. All the above

You’re probably thinking, if it’s a dietician asking the question, the answer should be numbers one or two, but you know in your heart, the answer is number six, and you’re right! There are many reasons we make the food choices that we do, and nutrition is only one of them.

Think of all the holidays we celebrate with sugar: Halloween, Easter, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, birthdays, weddings, retirements, and the list goes on. The foods we call “junk foods” also happen to be comfort foods for a lot of people because they remind us of a time when life was less complicated … when mom packed potato chips in our lunchbox or grandma baked cookies with us. America is a land of immigrants, and the foods we grew up eating, even though they may not be the healthiest foods, are sometimes the only tangible things that take us back to our roots when we’re feeling homesick.

At the same time, we as a society have a growing fear of sugar, especially in the last few years when headlines implicated that sugar was as addictive as cocaine (more on that later). News articles seem to connect the rising rates of obesity with sugar intake, making sugar out to be the biggest culprit; whereas the truth is that the etiology of obesity is complex and multifactorial, including genetics, medications, stress and physical activity.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not saying that sugar is good for us or that we should all be eating more sugar. I completely agree that we live in a society where unhealthy, processed foods are way too accessible and cheap, and a lot of it is marketed to children. I wish sodas were never created or sold! And, unfortunately, our food environment will take years to change, though there is definitely progress happening in that area. Soda sales are lower than before, and more people are buying lower-sugar beverages like coconut water and lightly sweetened teas.

But You Still Crave Something Sweet

For many years, I asked my patients to try apple slices with cinnamon and frozen grapes when they were craving candy and ice cream. I often prepared the famous “cocoa banana frozen dessert” for my patients to taste as a healthier alternative to ice cream, and I still think these are healthier ways to satisfy a sweet tooth. Many people actually feel satisfied with fruit, never seem to crave sweets and can eat sugar in moderation without it becoming a problem. But there are lots of people who feel out of control with sugar. Those who can’t have just one candy. They feel like they have to eat the whole bag, and so they just avoid it altogether (until they break down).

What explains these differences? Is the problem the sugar itself? Or is there something else going on? And is the answer avoidance/abstinence from sugar?

Is Sugar Addictive?

In 2014, a few studies showed that sugar was as addictive as cocaine. These studies were done on rats, and actually were flawed in their methodology, but because they were sensational “clickbait,” they quickly made headlines, further fueling the sugar phobia in our society.

The only time the rats in the studies consumed sugar in an addictive-like way was when they had intermittent access to it. When they had unlimited access to sugar, they didn’t demonstrate addiction-like behavior, which seems to be further evidence for deprivation driving compulsive eating. While its true that certain brain regions light up in response to sugar, just like in response to cocaine, that only happened when the rats were starved for 12 hours and then given sugar, which points to the fact that food feels more rewarding in a state of hunger and deprivation. Food is supposed to feel rewarding as our survival depends on it. The reward center in our brain is hardwired to light up when we eat. However, drugs like cocaine hijack food’s natural reward pathway.

In 2016, a review of existing literature showed that there was no basis to the claim that sugar is an addictive substance (Sugar Addiction: State of the Science: Westwater, et al, European Journal of Nutrition, 2016). While the experience of feeling out of control with certain foods including sugar is a very real and proven condition, as seen in disordered eating and eating disorders, the claim that sugar itself is an addictive substance is inaccurate and based on limited and flawed animal studies.

To Abstain or Not

This sort of fearmongering about sugar without adequate evidence can cause more damage than the sugar itself. Because now, in addition to guilt, shame, and anxiety, there’s another emotion attached to eating sugar … fear. And fear can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you eat something with guilt, fear, and anxiety, are you eating it slowly and mindfully? Letting it melt in your mouth? Or quickly, in a “let me get this over with before anyone sees me” way? When you eat something quickly, do you really enjoy it? Do you feel satisfied? And what happens when you’re not satisfied? You guessed it, you eat more!

So, ironically abstinence or avoidance of sugar (which is the recommendation given by “experts” who treat food addiction, which by the way isn’t even an official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders diagnosis or condition) can actually make binge eating even worse by fueling the fear of sugar. And this is a fact supported by many research studies in eating disorder journals.

Does Demonizing Sugar Cause More Damage?

So, to sum up, this article is not about promoting sugar. It’s about asking the question: Does demonizing sugar cause more damage than simply looking at it as something that should be consumed in moderation?

Some of you might be thinking by now, what kind of dietician is this, defending sugar instead of asking us to satisfy our sweet cravings with fruit! I actually did that, for many years, but stopped when I heard this story from my patients more than a few times:

“The other day I was craving a (let’s say brownie), but I was trying to be good so I had fruit instead. That didn’t satisfy me, so I had a sugar-free Jello. Still didn’t do it for me, so I had a low-cal something else. By the end of the day, I was still craving the brownie, and had eaten more calories than if I had eaten a piece of brownie in the first place!” Or “By the end of the day, I was so frustrated that I broke down and ate too much brownie and then felt terrible after!”

I realized that this is how an unhealthy relationship with food can take root. Such an incident can cause anxiety every time this person thinks of this ill-fated food in the future. This is how trigger foods are made.

Take What I’ve Learned

Keep these tidbits in mind.

  • I have learned over the years that food has become a moral issue in our culture; labeling foods as “good” and “bad” leads to feelings of guilt and shame that can be demoralizing and discouraging. And these uncomfortable feelings can lead to comfort eating to numb them.
  • I have learned that sometimes fruit will satisfy a sweet craving, but other times, a person maybe craving more than just a candy bar or ice cream. They may be craving a beloved childhood memory linked to that food. And who am I to take that experience away from them?
  • By acting as the “food police” and guilt tripping people for eating the so-called “bad” foods, I may not only be bringing out the inner rebel within them, but I also may be disempowering them into thinking that they don’t deserve that natural experience that they are seeking.
  • I have learned that people actually make better choices when they are the ones making the decisions instead of being policed. Restriction leads to rebellion and compulsion, while permission leads to choice. And the eating experience is a much more mindful and satisfying experience when a person makes the choice to eat a food versus breaking down and eating just to “get it over with.”

If we stopped demonizing sugar and calling it an addictive substance, and instead became curious about the other reasons that some people feel out of control around it, we might discover that the reasons are more nuanced and psychological than physiological. And if we looked at sugar as just another food that’s okay enjoyed in moderation, then we might actually have a healthier relationship with it, satisfying our cravings mindfully, and then moving on, not having to obsess over it. Let’s face it, we aren’t going to stop celebrating holidays with sugar anytime soon! And because there are many reasons we eat, fueling our bodies is just one of them!

  24 comments for “What’s Worse: Sugar or the Fear of It?

  1. Anonymously
    January 5, 2020 at 8:08 pm

    It has been demonstrated as far back as the 50s that the major culprit that clogs up veins and arteries and causes heart disease is fat.(The 7 nations study). There is absolutely no fat in sugar!

  2. Paul Baratta
    May 1, 2018 at 9:45 am

    What is worse: “getting hit by a car” or fear of it?

  3. Swapna
    April 20, 2018 at 2:07 pm

    Very insightful… great article!

  4. Lisa McKiernan
    April 19, 2018 at 6:11 pm

    Awesome article !!! I so can so relate to everything you said … people will say “ oh you had weight loss surgery so I can’t have cake right?” I say “ why not? I can eat whatever I want in moderation and I’m not going to feel guilty … That’s my new mindset since I’ve had my surgery..I’m pretty much where I want to be and maintaining nicely using this method .. Thank Narmin I’ve learnt so much about eating and becoming healthy from you…I will be forever grateful that you can in my life 💞

    • narmin virani
      May 6, 2018 at 8:18 pm

      Thank you!!! So true, satisfaction is important for sustainability!

  5. Christine cobain
    April 16, 2018 at 8:39 am

    Great article, so true about sugar

  6. April 16, 2018 at 8:08 am

    Permission vs policing – thanks for that important differentiation

  7. Anonymous
    April 16, 2018 at 7:57 am

    Also websites like yummly.com have great receipes for healthy cakes, muffins, cookies with natural sugar like honey, applesauce etc…

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