When You Ask: But Isn't Sugar "Bad?"

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This is probably one of the questions I get the most from my clients, students, friends and family! 

But you see, it's not that simple.  I would have to ask you a whole bunch of questions right back: 

1. "BAD" for what?

"Bad" is a word we throw around so much yet is not very descriptive nor scientific.  What is the context we're talking about? Are we talking about the effect of sugar on cavities? On weight? On managing a specific condition or preventing a condition?  

Sure, there are adverse health effects that can potentially come from eating sugar, but that can be said about pretty much ANY food depending on what context we're putting it in. 

2. WHAT KIND of sugar are we talking about?

Equally, "sugar" is also not a very specific term.  Are we talking about only sucrose, aka table sugar, or fructose(found in fruits) and lactose(found in dairy), the starches(found in grains or starchy vegetables like potatoes), or other type of sweeteners? 

But even if we were to just be speaking about "sugar" as in mostly "sweet foods," we still need more information. 

3. HOW MUCH (sugar) are we talking? 

This is one of the most important questions we need to think about when discussing something as a "bad food" and feel like we must ban it forever and never touch it again!  Are we talking eating loads of it 3 times a day? Once a day? Twice a week? Maybe very occasionally? Again, we need to put it in context.

When you read about research results about the potential effects of any food, there is most likely something called a dose-dependent effect, which means it takes a certain amount/frequency for a potential effect to happen (if it happens at all!), and the strength of the effect will likely increase as the dose increases.  Therefore, how much, how often really does matter. 

Then again, food is ONE factor of health, but it definitely isn't the ONLY factor.  Genetics, environment, stress levels, other lifestyle behaviors (just to name a few!) also have significant effects on health and disease, which also need to be taken into consideration if we want to talk about the effects of food and nutrition.

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4. WHAT ELSE are you eating?

Another really important follow-up question!  Is the amount and frequency of sugary foods a person is eating crowding out room for other nutrients and potentially creating various nutrient deficiencies?  OR are they still eating a a pretty good variety of foods?  Those would be two very different situations. 

Perhaps a person eats a cup of ice cream almost every evening.  But let's say that person also eats a pretty balanced meals 3 times a day with a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables that would give them a lot of vitamins and minerals.  Would the effect of "sugar" in that person's diet be the same as someone who also eats a cup of ice cream every evening, but whose remaining diet consists mostly of less nutritious options such as soda, fast foods, and other processed foods?

5. WHEN and WHY are you eating sugar? 

This is also such an important question to think about and I will often have many conversations around this with my clients.  Are you eating sugar constantly, because it just sounds so good? Is it mostly mindless and/or emotional eating after a long stressful day at work?  Do you dislike other foods and only like the taste of sweet foods?

Or do you not think about sweets too much at all, but just happen to have it on an occasional night or at a celebration like a birthday party or wedding?  WHY we eat something matters, because a lot of times, when someone has undesirable eating behaviors going on, there is likely a very good reason behind it that may even have NOTHING to do with food. (This warrants a whole other type of conversation!)

Getting the point yet?!

There are MANY factors that need to be considered before we can start talking about the potential effects, and depending on all of these different factors for which every individual will differ, the answer to the question "but isn't sugar bad?" can have many, MANY different answers.

And if anyone tries to tell you--without considering those different factors and individual complexities--that sugar is simply BAD period, stop listening to that person and run in the other direction. They are not using sound science and evidence, but fear and restriction, which I can most confidently tell you is NOT the way to finding your health(physical AND emotional) or happiness.