Pretty much every health expert agrees on the fact that sugar in excess can be majorly problematic for health. It's been linked to inflammation, unhealthy weight gain, and an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. Sugar consumption also has a surprising link to the body's stress response and anxiety levels. Generally, most of us could stand to eat less sugar—which is why sugar "detoxes" and other ways to cut down on sugar intake seem like a good idea. But is it ever a good idea to cut out literally all forms of sugar from your diet? We asked some experts to get their take.
Is there anything good at all about sugar?
In order to answer this question, it helps to understand a bit more about how sugar works. There are two types of sugars: simple sugars, which are naturally occurring and become carbohydrates (like those found vegetables, fruits, and grains), and refined sugars, which come from the sugar cane plant and are used to make processed and sweetened foods, like baked goods, cereals, and white flour products, says Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD, CDN.
While all sugar affects your body similarly (spiking blood sugar, etc), people should prioritize getting sugar from fruit, whole, grains, and vegetables rather than from the refined stuff. They're typically more nutritionally dense than refined sugars, because they're found in complex carbohydrate sources that also inherently contain lots of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, says Zeitlin. The refined sugar group typically only offers you sugar without any additional nutritional benefit. (They do offer a different benefit in that they taste delicious, are fun to eat, and can often be a main part of social events with loved ones—valid perks, in moderation!)
“In excess, elevated levels of sugar intake may result in the metabolic syndrome—characterized by insulin resistance, diabetes and obesity,” says Robert Glatter, MD, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwell Health and attending emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
However, eating some amount of sugar in the form of natural, simple sugars is important. “There is a huge benefit from eating complex carbohydrates—the sugar they offer gives you energy and fuel (for your body and brain), while the vitamins and minerals help your body carry out its everyday functions, and the fiber in them keeps your GI system healthy, reduces bloat, and fights chronic diseases,” says Zeitlin.
Is it even possible to cut out *all* sugar?
In reality, eliminating all sugar from your diet is pretty damn hard. “Sugar is contained in so many of the foods we eat on a daily basis—especially when we go out to restaurants that serve food which contains hidden amounts of sugars,” says Dr. Glatter. That doesn't mean it's not worth it to be mindful of one's sugar intake, but to completely cut sugar out of one's diet would involve a significant amount of research, likely require preparing all the food one eats themselves, and in some cases, could make a person's experience with food super restrictive and limiting. In other words, it's not a sustainable way to eat for most.
It's not a good idea to go completely cold turkey on all forms of sugar from a health standpoint, either. “Cutting out all sugar would mean cutting out fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which not only sounds like torture but is also super unhealthy for you," says Zeitlin. "These are the only three foods that can offer you fiber, so if you cut them out you will likely suffer from constipation, bloat and GI discomfort," she says. And fiber is a crucial nutrient that's finally getting the recognition it deserves, thanks to its proven ability to lower cholesterol, keep blood sugar levels in check, and maintain digestive health—so skipping foods that have it to avoid sugar isn't a good health compromise.
Cutting out all sugar would likely compromise a person's mental and physical stamina, too. “Glucose, the building block contained in all forms of sugar, is a vital compound that is required for optimal functioning of our brain and heart, along with all cells in our body,” explains Dr. Glatter. "The carbohydrate group offers essential vitamins to help keep your metabolism running, your nerve system functioning, while the glucose (or simple sugar) in them fuels your brain,” Zeitner adds. (There's a good reason why she'd never recommend keto and other low-carb plans to her clients!)
How to be smart about sugar consumption
To be clear: While excessive amounts of sugar can lead to major health problems, avoiding *all* sources of sugar is a misguided (and nearly impossible) venture. Instead, Zeitlin often suggests using the 80-20 method for more balance. “Eighty percent of your diet should come from lean sources of protein, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and heart-healthy fats," she says, while the remaining 20 percent could be reserved for the refined sugar foods that you love.
When you eat sugar, keep the portions smaller. “This will stabilize your blood sugar, avoiding the surges of insulin that result from eating processed foods, which contain rapidly digesting refined sugars found in muffins, scones, white bread or regular pasta,” explains Dr. Glatter.
It's also smart to optimize the 80 percent of your healthy diet to make sure you don't overdo it on the sugar part. Make sure every meal you have has a good source of protein to keep you focused and satiated throughout the day. “Aim for eggs or plain Greek yogurt at breakfast, and for lunch and dinner mix it up between chickpeas, edamame, lentils, chicken, turkey, fish, shellfish,” Zeitlin suggests. Eat lots of vegetables, she adds—the fiber will help keep you full so that don’t go looking for something sweet in-between mealtime. Getting enough water is important, too. “Focus on getting in eight to 10 or more glasses of water a day. Staying well hydrated will help to curb any sugar cravings that may come calling,” Zeitlin says.
Some people (such as those with diabetes or metabolic syndrome) might have to be more conscious of their sugar intake than others. In those cases, it could be necessary to go the extra mile and cut back on higher-sugar fruits. "Cherries, pears, mangos, and ripe bananas have higher sugar content than other fruits such as blackberries, strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, or avocados,” Dr. Glattner says. However, people in this situation should also be working with their doctor or registered dietitian to come up with an eating plan that fits their unique needs. (And most healthy people don't need to worry about this.)
To recap: Sugar doesn't have to be the enemy. A little something sweet every now and then isn't the end of the world, especially when it's eaten as part of a balanced diet that has plenty of protein, vegetables, fiber, and healthy fats. Here's to living a little.
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