In case you missed it, the newest trend is to cut every last bit of sugar out of your diet. Everything from sweets to condiments to even fruit are suddenly on the list of forbidden foods. According to every nutrition blogger, instagram star, and diet company, we’re all hopelessly addicted to sugar. The only way to break the cycle? Cut sugar out entirely.
If this is starting to sound vaguely familiar, that’s because it is. In the 90’s, fat was the enemy. More recently, gluten and dairy have been demonized as the source of all our health problems. Why? Because we would all love to find the one source of weight gain, lack of energy, and other various health issues. Unfortunately, nothing is ever as simple as blaming one single nutrient or food group. In order to understand what this sugar panic is all about, let’s break it down to the basics.
Why is sugar suddenly such a hot topic?
Although sugar has been blamed for health problems for quite some time, it has recently been in the spotlight thanks to new research calling out the sugar industry. The review shows evidence that the sugar industry may have suppressed information that sugar may contribute to heart disease in order to boost profits.
First, let’s take a look at the facts. During the 1960’s, science was exploring the cause of hardened arteries that lead to heart disease. It’s important to note that both sugar and saturated fat were being investigated as the potential cause of clogged arteries. The problem arises when the sugar industry realized they had something to gain if Americans decrease their intake of saturated fats. Why? Because if you stop eating calories from fat, you still need calories and flavor from something. That something would likely be sugar.
Is the sugar industry to blame?
Up until this point, the sugar industry was doing what any successful business would do: attempting to capitalize on an opportunity. But the push to clear sugar’s name as the culprit in heart disease drove the industry into some shady dealings. In 1967, the study in question was published blaming primarily saturated fat for America’s heart problems. The study did not disclose the source of their funding, the Sugar Research Foundation, and downplayed the role that sugar played in the development of heart disease. Researchers concluded that the best way to lower serum lipids was to manipulate the amount of saturated fat in the diet. Interestingly, the research conveniently glossed over evidence pointing to sugar, stating…
“Limited evidence from studies on man as well as researches on laboratory animals show a slightly significant role for the kind and amount of dietary carbohydrate in the regulation of serum lipids. These effects are somewhat more pronounced when diets low in fats are consumed. Since diets low in fat and high in sugar are rarely taken, we conclude that the practical significance of differences in dietary carbohydrate is minimal in comparison to those related to dietary fat and cholesterol.”
Translation: We discovered that if you consume the diet we hope you will eat when we expose the dangers of saturated fat, you are at a higher risk of heart disease than if you just kept eating saturated fat. What happened next was that the “rarely taken” diet of high sugar and low fat became popular with those trying to lower their risk of heart disease. Companies looking to put out “healthy” products began making low fat options that were packed full of sugar. Great news for the sugar industry, not so great news for the general public.
So what now? Do I cut out sugar entirely?
The short answer is no. It’s easy to focus on the fact that the sugar industry wasn’t being completely honest with the public. But saturated fat was also shown to play a role in heart disease. This suggests that neither diets high in saturated fat nor high in sugar are all that great for you. Gasp.
This brings us back to the original point. While it would be great to cut one single component out of your diet and suddenly be healthy, that’s just not how it works. Food is complicated. The human body is complicated. And the science of it all is very, very complicated. We’re still learning new reasons why the simple sugar in baked goods affects us differently than the sugar in fruit. New links between diet and health are continually being discovered. Jumping on every bit of sensationalized science that comes along is dangerous.
So what’s a person to do?
It’s all about balance. The 1967 research contains an important lesson: cutting something out of your diet entirely likely means you’ll replace it with something else that is also not great for you. Instead of searching for the one thing you can do to suddenly become the picture of health, focus on balance. Some days you’ll eat a salad, some days you’ll have a donut for breakfast and that’s ok. Eating should be enjoyable, not an impossible-to-navigate puzzle.
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- Kearns CE, Schmidt LA, Glantz SA. Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease ResearchA Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(11):1680–1685. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.5394
- McGandy RB, Hegsted DM, Stare FJ. Dietary fats, carbohydrates and atherosclerotic vascular disease. N Engl J Med. 1967;277(5):245-247.
- Patel, E. K. (2017, March 28). Did you know … sugary fruit could help regulate blood sugar? Retrieved August 23, 2017, from https://examine.com/nutrition/did-you-know-sugary-fruit-could-help-regulate-blood-sugar/