I gave a talk last week on sugar in the North American diet and its effects on your health and I thought it was worth further exploring here on my blog. Sugar is a touchy subject with polarizing effects: some, like Dr Robert Lustig, believe it is toxic. Others, like those who sell the stuff, say its harmless. As per usual, I take a tack somewhere left of centre.

It is pretty satisfying to label sugar as toxic (and it’s made Dr Lustig pretty noteworthy) as working in absolutes seems to make things easier for the public – and the media – and yet, if we are honest with ourselves as eaters…we must realize that unless we drop dead from a few bites, a substance can’t really be labeled as toxic. Technically, we could kill ourselves by drinking too much water but we won’t label it as toxic. We tend to reserve the label for those foods or substances that are implicated in our current health epidemics of obesity and chronic obesity…diabesity, if you will.

Don’t think I am letting sugar off the nutritional hook though – I absolutely feel that our consumption of sugars has dug us a sugary sweet hole in our health. However, a healthy person who puts a little teaspoon of sugar in their tea is not irresponsible. So let’s start swimming in the grey area, shall we?

First, we have to get clear about what we mean when I say sugar.

When I say ‘sugar’, I mean all forms of sugar that are added to foods. These are the fruit juice concentrates, cane sugars, sugar alcohols, high fructose corn syrups and good old fashioned sugar (which are now deemed so expensive that they rarely show up in food). I am not referring to the sugars that are naturally occurring in a food. Your body gets it – the two are different.

For one, added sugars are almost always devoid of any nutrients; these are the ’empty calories’ that tantalize taste buds without giving your body anything it needs to live. Unless you are in the habit of running marathons, the goal is lots of nutrition without a lot of calories. The average person doesn’t really have room in their eating habits for a lot of empty calories unless they are ready to get roomier pants. Sugars add a lot of not-very-filling calories, making them easy to overeat; not to mention the pleasure that the brain derives from sweet foods encourages us to keep overeating – have you ever tried to overeat broccoli? Now you see my point.

When you add sugars to a food or concentrate the naturally occuring ones, you are also now giving your body a dose of sugar that your body is not naturally intended to handle. A glass of orange juice is roughly equivalent to eating 3 or 4 oranges all at once, minus the lovely fibre and a whole bunch of phytochemicals lost in processing. A can of coke? You just sucked back almost 10 tsp of sugar with no nutritional value whatsoever. Large doses of rapidly absorbed sugars send your blood sugar soaring, spiking insulin levels, pissing off your pancreas and stoking the fires of chronic inflammation in your poor crumbling temple of a body. So in this respect, I do feel that sugar (the added stuff) is a terrible thing to be consuming in any real quantity.

However, I don’t ban it from my life. Remember my 80/20 rule? Eighty percent of the time, I eat the good stuff: plant foods in their natural state. That gives me 20% wiggle room for a birthday cupcake, a spoonful of honey in my tea or a piece of chocolate. What matters here is blood sugar control. When we keep our blood sugar stable by eating unprocessed, natural foods such as intact grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and legumes it doesn’t matter if we put a tablespoon of honey in our favourite recipe. In the context of whole foods, which provide a slow, sustained rise in blood sugar, a bit of actual sugar doesn’t hurt a bit. It is always the context of the diet that counts.

Of course, when I make my case for the evils of too much sugar or balanced blood sugars, it can be easy for the earnestly healthy among us to start tripping down the slippery slope of foods that have ‘too much sugar’ such as bananas or watermelon or heck, even potatoes. Hold your horses, cowgirl! Real food gets a pass – even the much maligned banana. Why?

While it is true that all carbohydrate-rich foods get broken down in the body into blood sugar, repeat after me: real food comes with real nutrition. Yes, the more carb-laden foods among us might raise blood sugars more than some blueberries or arugula but as long as we aren’t eating a pound of potatoes or a 4 banana smoothie at one sitting, we will be just fine. Dose counts just as much as food choice. Healthy eaters are always so hard on ourselves. The problem here is juice, pop, cookies, candy, crackers, breads and pastries – not a piece of fruit. It’s those sugary cereals masquerading as ‘whole grain goodness’ or those ‘fruit snacks’ that are actually fruit shaped candy. Not the lovely real food that comes out of the ground to help nourish your body.

Really want to keep things balanced? Then simply eat these carbohydrate-rich foods with some healthy fibre, fat and a bit of protein. Sort of like the meals that most of us plan for ourselves. If you have type two diabetes, keeping blood sugars balanced becomes especially important and for some, you may want to consider choosing less carbohydrate-rich foods as your body has trouble dealing with them. It is worth talking to your dietitian if this is the case; they can help you figure out where your ‘sweet spot’ of carbohydrate consumption will be. At the end of the day, while sugar might not be poison, it is definitely not your friend. Choose fresh and real over processed and sweetened.

Desiree’s Sweet Advice for Reducing your Sugar Intake:

  1. Stop drinking your calories. Period. Wean yourself off the pop and juice…even (especially) for your kids. In a flavour pinch? Flavour sparkling water with 1/4 cup real, unconcentrated juice.
  2. Take a good look at all the starchy and sweet foods you eat. Finish them up and then look for alternatives. Healthy crackers and cereals do exist. Need a frozen treat? Mix up plain yogurt and fruit and freeze, without any sugar. Not sure what’s healthy anymore? Check out my healthy grocery list on pinterest.
  3. Realize that it takes your tastebuds time to adjust…such is the lure of sugar. Take it down stepwise, week by week. Start by getting your favourite coffee drink half sweet, when you’re ready – switch to a latte. Cut your pop or juice down with sparkling water by a 1/4, then a half…you see the pattern here.
  4. Going cold turkey works, but only for the brave and motivated. Keep blood sugars controlled with plenty of protein and eventually the blood sugar roller coaster will screech to a halt. Trust that once you totally get rid of concentrated sugars in the diet you will eventually stop craving it.

Are you a sugar addict or sugar phobe? What are your favourite low sugar snacks? Let me know in the comments!