[Maria here. Because of all the hype around sugar I had to address the major claims about the benefits of a no sugar diet. While it is true that many of us consume too much added sugar, and we’d be much better off cutting down on the amount we consume, this does not necessarily justify jumping all the way to the other side – a no sugar diet.
It might seem hard to believe right now but a no sugar diet can actually make you more, not less, UNhealthy. So before you jump in the “quit sugar” bandwagon, read on; Tommy Close, MS, a performance coach, elaborates.]
Why a no sugar diet may make you less, not more, healthy.
Unless you’ve recently arrived from a distant planet in some parallel universe, chances are you’ve come across the No Sugar Diet.
In fact, like me, you might have even given the whole sugar free trend a whirl yourself in an attempt to solve all your health related woes.
I know that back when I attempted to kick my sweet, yet toxic “addiction” for sugar, I was dead set that the white stuff was making me feel lethargic, tired, and fat, and that the only cure to all this was to cut it out of my diet once and for all.
I mean, all the dieting gurus were telling me just how toxic, fattening, and addictive sugar was, so naturally I felt as though I was crippling my body by feeding it the stuff.
- What if we’ve all been misled about sugar though?
- What if sugar isn’t actually the dieting devil it’s often made out to be?
- And what if a no sugar diet will actually make you more unhealthy in the long run?
Those questions might seem undeniably false to you right now, but today I’m going to be questioning your beliefs and digging into the scientific research to answer them.
1. Sugar is not particularly responsible for weight gain. Eating more calories than you burn is.
I know that for me, trimming down my belly fat was the main motivator kicking off my no sugar diet a number of years ago
And as the weeks passed, I sure dropped a hefty sum of pounds, revealing abs I had almost forgotten I had.
I can’t say I was surprised by this though, as I had complete faith in the no sugar diet movement.
In fact, being the newbie to the fitness and nutrition world that I was at the time, I fully believed all that I had been told by the fitness gurus about sugar’s role in fat gain:
When you eat sugar, it ramps up your insulin levels. Because insulins helps shovel nutrients into cells and downregulates fat burning, when insulin levels rise, fat storage increases (1,2). Because of this, it seemed quite obvious to me that sugar causes fat gain due to its impact on insulin. So going on a no sugar diet lowers insulin and as a result, body fat is free to be singed.
At the time, this rationale in combo with the results I saw from cutting out sugar seemed to add up perfectly.
So like many before me, I concluded that the gurus were right: sugar really was the dietary devil causing us all to gain weight, and that simply going on a no sugar diet stripped off the pounds.
In reality, they (and regrettably my former self) were dead wrong though.
You see, whilst eating sugar does ramp up insulin which does increase fat storage, the short term changes in fat burning and storage (eg: after a meal) don’t dictate fat loss. Saying it does is like claiming that you’re broke because you just did your weekly shop; it’s the long term balance of money going in and out of your account that determines your wealth, not the hourly or daily changes.
Likewise, it’s the balance between fat burning and storage over the long term that dictates your waistline.
And when stripped back to basics, this fat balance comes down to Calories: burn more than you take in over a prolonged period of time and you’ll trim down (2). Simples.
What happens when you cut down on the sweet stuff is you leave a big sugary sized hole in your diet that used to be a load of Calories coming from biscuits, sweets, cake or whatever other sweet foods you used to enjoy.
It is the absence of Calories coming from these foods you cut out that causes you to drop dress sizes, not the sugar itself.
So you don’t lose weight because you cut down on sugar; you lose weight in spite of the fact that you cut down on sugar. The same can be said for lots of other faddy diets that cut out entire food groups or ingredients like gluten. They work because they simply lead to a drop in Calories.
“Ok Tommy, that’s great. But I still need a detox from sugar; after all, it is toxic isn’t it?”
2. Sugar is not toxic, so don’t expect to magically “get rid of toxins.”
I won’t lie to you, sugar IS toxic and if you eat enough of the white stuff you will end up causing yourself some major damage. In fact, you could drop down into a Haribo induced comatosed state and end up dead.
The same can be said for pretty much everything though.
Yes, that means things like water, vitamin D, and caffeine can all be toxic, just like sugar can.
The thing is, it’s the dose that makes the poison.
And in sugar’s case, the dose you would need to take for it to become toxic is pretty damn substantial.
Toxicologists measure how toxic a substance is with the LD50, which is just fancy talk for a dose that would kill 50% of individuals (FYI, they test this on rats, not humans. Because ethics and stuff) (3).
- For water, the LD50 for an average joe weighing in at 70kg is over 6000g.
- Vitamin D is 0.7g.
- Caffeine is 14g (for any coffee lovers, that’s roughly 100-200 cups of coffee).
- For sugar, the LD50 is around 1000-2000g. That’s equivalent to eating 25 pint tubs of Ben and Jerrys, 20 big 215g packs of Haribo, or 60 cans of Coke, in one single sitting.
I don’t know about you, but I reckon even the greatest of sugar “addicts” would struggle even getting close to those sugary numbers, meaning that sugar really isn’t all that toxic after all.
Which brings me on to my next point:
3. Sugar is not addictive on its own (but combinations with salt and fat can be “addictive-like.”)
A lot of people talk about sugar like it’s some sort of drug that you’ll get hooked on more so than a season of Breaking Bad.
The thing is, whilst it’s true that sugary foods may stimulate brain reward pathways that are also involved in drug addiction, as we’ve discussed previously, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s addictive (4,5).
In fact, a recent study designed to test the sugar addiction theory found that addictive like symptoms were reported less for sugar-sweetened specific foods (5%) compared to those high in fat and sweet, and/or high in fat and savoury (25-30%) (4).
This isn’t all that surprising when you actually take a minute to think about it though. You see, if sugar really was addictive, you would see so called sugar addicts walking around munching on cubes of table sugar, guzzling down bottles of honey, and knocking back straight up glucose.
That doesn’t happen though, quite simply because sugar tastes naff in its rawer forms.
In reality, it’s mixes of sugar, fat, starch, and salt that we see everyone pigging out on as these ingredients are put together in combos that makes foods like ice cream, chocolate, and biscuits hyperpalatable (ie: damn tasty) and consequently “addictive-like.”
In fact, the authors of that study I just mentioned concluded the following (4):
“The brain does not appear to respond to food and/or sugar in the same way as to drugs; and ‘addictive-like’ overeating seems to be distinct from drug-addiction disorders. Sugar does not seem to contribute to weight-gain more so than other sources of energy in the diet. Instead, the current scientific community nowadays seems to reach consensus that ‘food addiction’ (and its role in weight gain) might be better explained by ‘eating dependence’ as a result of the unique individual experience with food and eating (instead of being caused by a specific food).” [emphasis mine]
So no; sugar isn’t addictive like so many of the nutrition gurus you see all over social media will have you believe, it’s not inherently fattening either, and it sure as heck isn’t toxic unless you guzzle down bucket loads of the stuff in one sitting.
That means you needn’t worry about completely cutting it out of your life in an attempt to restore your health or curves.
4. The no sugar diet may make you more likely to binge. Hello eating disorders!
If you’re like me, when you’re told you can’t do something, it just spurs you on to prove the naysayers wrong.
Similarly, if I’m told I can’t eat X, Y, or Z food, it only makes me crave it more, and when I followed my no sugar diet, this is exactly what happened.
In other words, by just knowing that I wasn’t allowed cakes, cookies, and chocolate it made them plague my mind all day, and although my desire for chiselled abs helped me steer clear of their sweet and creamy lure for the most part, sometimes that just wasn’t enough.
Whilst falling off my rigid no sugar diet wouldn’t have been a problem if I just had the odd sugary treat or two, when I did end up giving in to my sweet temptations, I went ham on all the sugariness I could get my hands on. I’m talking tubs of ice cream, big bars of chocolate, and bags of tangy Haribo all washed down with thick and creamy milkshakes.
So my weekly Calorie intake ended up looking a little like this:
This certainly was a problem both physiologically and psychologically as it undid a lot of the progress I had worked so hard to make, and it also screwed with my head, making me feel bad for pigging out and attempting to compensate by almost starving myself on the following days.
It’s not just my old self that this happens to either and, as we’ve highlighted before, research actually suggests that rigid diets where lots of foods are totally excluded typically increase the risk of psychological issues with food, binging behaviors, and lead to poorer weight loss results (6-8).
That’s not exactly the best outcome from a diet that’s meant to make you healthier.
What’s more is that many people who take on a no sugar diet tend to exclude perfectly nutritious foods that do more to improve health than hamper it.
5. The no sugar diet may make you cut out some of the most nutritious foods.
There’s a big difference between scoffing down a load of highly processed foods that have had a bucket load of sugar added to them, and enjoying foods that are natural sources of the sweet stuff.
You see, typically foods that have had lots of sugar added to them have also had many of nutrients stripped away in the processing steps.
- For example, the flour in cakes has been highly refined from the original grain making it lower in fibre and micronutrients.
- Vegetable oils in cookies have been stripped of the vast array of micronutrients that naturally occur in the original vegetable
- And the added sugars and syrups used in sweets contain practically none of the vitamins and minerals that are present in the wholefoods they’re extracted from like potatoes, corn, or wheat.
When you look at minimally processed foods that are natural sources of sugar, they’re still packaged with a combo of nutrients that are vital components of a healthy diet though:
- Apples contain lots of fibre and micronutrients
- Bananas are a great source of potassium as well as many other nutrients
- And milk packs in plenty of high quality protein, B vitamins, and fats.
So if you follow a no sugar diet and decide to crack down on ALL sources of sugar, you may well reduce your intake of lots of highly processed and refined foods which is great, but your diet may also end up lacking in lots of important nutrients too.
In fact, lots of research has shown higher levels of various diseases, illnesses, and ultimately early death rates in those who consume little fruit (13-16).
For example, a recent scientific review collating the results of 95 previous studies found that those consuming up to 10 servings of fruit and vegetables per day were at the lowest risk of multiple diseases and early death (15).
6. Replacing white sugar with honey or brown sugar won’t offer health benefits.
Is the sugar in natural food better than the sugar in processed food then?
Well no, not exactly. Sugar is sugar.
The sugar molecules themselves aren’t necessarily any different. For example, the sugar in fruits like bananas and grapes are a 50:50 mix of glucose and fructose, which is the same as table sugar (9).
These sugar molecules aren’t inherently bad unless consumed in excess (like pretty much everything), and what makes natural sources of sugar more healthful is the nutrients they come packaged along with; not the simple fact that they’re naturally occurring.
So don’t go kidding yourself by thinking that drizzling tablespoons of honey, maple sugar, or agave nectar in your coffee is far healthier that table sugar.
So you should take a more holistic approach to your nutritional intake and not look at foods or ingredients in isolation; it’s the package and diet as a whole that counts.
With all that said, many of us in the modern world are consuming too much added sugar and could do with making strides towards a less sugary diet. This doesn’t necessarily mean attempting to “detox” yourself from the white stuff (in fact, no organic juice cleanse or detox diet can help you “detox.”) Rather, a more balanced, healthy, and sustainable approach that’s actually supported by scientific evidence and government recommendations would most likely lead to better results (10-12).
I wish I had known this myself back in my no sugar diet days, and taking a less extreme approach would have saved me a lot of time, effort, and mental energy used up resisting the sugary temptations of Ben and Jerry’s.
Why some people get decent results on a “no sugar diet.”
The main reason people following a no sugar diet achieve results such as fat loss, more energy, and clearer skin is due to these dietary changes they make along with additional lifestyle modifications:
- Fat loss comes with a drop in Calories that typically happens by default when sugar is off the menu.
- More energy and clearer skin often result from the increase in wholefoods that tends to come along with cutting down on the sugary snacks.
- And stress management techniques and cracking down on sleep will also contribute to maximizing health on all fronts
So you don’t need some sort of sugar “detox” or no sugar diet to see the health or weight loss results you’re after.
Sure, if your intake of added sugar is high and you’re looking to trim down the tum, swiftly gliding past the sweet aisle on your weekly shop is a good plan, but your main focus should be on consistently sticking to the basics of nutrition and creating the lifestyle habits conductive to healthy living; not one individual food or ingredient like sugar.
After digesting today’s article (I know, lame pun), leave a comment below – have you tried a no sugar diet? What made you start?
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