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Is It Ever Okay to Eat Added Sugar?

Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

Sugar is one of the most vilified nutrients, and not without reason.  Sugar provides calories and carbohydrates that can fuel your muscles and brain, but on its own sugar doesn’t contain any vitamins, minerals, or fiber.  When eaten in excess, it can contribute to weight gain and the development of Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease.  Because of this, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating no more than 10% of your calories from added sugar.1 Some people take this even further, resorting to desperate measures like cleanse diets or avoiding all carbohydrates (since these are broken down into simple sugars during digestion).  Even if you try to keep a more balanced approach, you may find yourself worrying about the “sugars” line on the nutrition facts label, wondering if it’s ever okay to eat food that contains added sugar.

The answer is yes!  While it’s true that eating a lot of added sugar instead of nutrient-dense foods can harm your health, foods that contain sugar can fit into a balanced meal pattern. This is especially true if the sugar helps you eat other nutrient-dense foods.  For example, many people find plain yogurt too sour and prefer to get some protein and calcium from flavored yogurt that may be sweetened with sugar.  Sprinkling a little cinnamon and sugar over an apple is a great way to enjoy some fiber and vitamin C.  Using a salad dressing that contains a little sugar can help you enjoy a variety of fresh vegetables.

Sugar is also an important source of fuel for your body.  Your muscles and brain use glucose, a simple sugar, for energy.  Not having enough of this during the day can leave you feeling tired or shaky.  While your body breaks down all carbohydrate-rich foods (grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products) into glucose, if you need a quick source of fuel you may be better off eating something that contains sugar alone.  This is especially true if you’re going into an intense athletic event.  Food is digested more slowly when it contains fiber, fat, and protein, and it’s best to avoid these nutrients before or during an athletic event to prevent stomach problems.  Instead, one of the following will give your muscles quick fuel during activity:2

  • Jelly beans
  • Gatorade
  • Crackers with jam
  • Dried fruit
  • Toast with honey
  • Yogurt with fruit
  • Low-fat granola bar

These types of snacks are also convenient to carry and can be eaten relatively quickly, so the won’t slow you down.

Completely avoiding sugar can also set you up for even stronger food cravings that may become harder and harder to resist.  In one study, people who were dieting to lose weight had more cravings than those who were just “monitoring” what they ate to maintain their weights.  The more they restricted their food choices, the more cravings they experienced.  On the other hand, those who didn’t restrict any particular foods reported fewer cravings.3 Other studies have shown that people who feel guilt after eating sweets, especially chocolate, feel less control over their food choices and have more difficulty maintaining their weight in the long term.4 This suggests that allowing yourself to enjoy a small amount of something sweet when you’re really craving it will be better in the long run, because you won’t have to manage as many cravings in the future.

Avoiding sugar takes its most extreme form as Orthorexia Nervosa (ON).  Although it isn’t officially recognized as an eating disorder, ON is considered a form of disordered eating in which someone is so fixated on eating “healthy” foods that it actually damages their overall health and wellness.5 Someone with ON may start out by avoiding added sugar but eventually move towards avoiding entire food groups they consider unhealthy or “impure.”6 Not everyone who is concerned about added sugar is destined to develop ON, but it is important to be aware of this possibility and remind yourself to be flexible in your food choices.  Sugar can have a place in a balanced meal pattern, especially when you are enjoying sweets as part of a celebration or social event.  This won’t lead to negative health consequences, but avoiding certain foods or feeling guilty after eating them could.

Instead of completely eliminating added sugar from your meal pattern, incorporate it in moderation.  Recognize that sugar can be valuable if it helps you

  • satisfy an occasional craving
  • enjoy nutritious foods
  • or get quick fuel during a strenuous workout.

When eating added sugar, eat consciously and savor the experience.  If you’re having trouble balancing sources of added sugar with other, nutrient-dense foods, make an appointment with a Registered Dietitian who can help you enjoy sugar in moderation while meeting your nutrient needs.

References:

  1.  A Closer Look Inside Healthy Eating Patterns – 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines – health.gov. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-1/a-closer-look-inside-healthy-eating-patterns/#callout-balance. Accessed June 11, 2018.
  2.  Archer E. In Defense of Sugar: A Critique of Diet-Centrism. Prog Cardiovasc Dis. May 2018. doi:10.1016/j.pcad.2018.04.007
  3.  Massey A, Hill AJ. Dieting and food craving. A descriptive, quasi-prospective study. Appetite. 2012;58(3):781-785. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.01.020
  4.  Kuijer RG, Boyce JA. Chocolate cake. Guilt or celebration? Associations with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioural control, intentions and weight-loss. Appetite. 2014;74:48-54. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2013.11.013
  5.  Orthorexia | National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia. Accessed June 7, 2018.
  6.  Dunn TM, Bratman S. On orthorexia nervosa: A review of the literature and proposed diagnostic criteria. Eat Behav. 2016;21:11-17. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2015.12.006

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