In Defense of Sugar {Part 1}

As I have mentioned in a few other posts, I was debilitatingly afraid of what sugar would to do my health for years. It was the main reason I never fully trusted myself to eat intuitively. The taste of sugar sent me into a panic. I thought every small taste of sugar was ruining my body, insulin, hormones, and weight. I truly convinced myself I did not like sugar.

Absurd.

This ‘sugar is evil’ theory however, is fully supported by mainstream media and doctors, not to mention the smaller sects of diet extremism (think: some sects of Paleo, some sects of Raw Veganism, some sects of GAPs, …. am I making this sound like Religious Fundamentalism? Good.). There was a lot of buzz about Robert Lustig’s lecture on the evils of sugar. “Experts” are even wary of fructose: the sugar in fruit.

Absurd.

But in fact, I think very few people ever argue in defense of sugar. No one seems to ever have anything neutral to say about it. It is always portrayed as an addictive villain. I guess they don’t assume that anyone will become as scared of it as I did. Or, actually, maybe they hope people will. I don’t know.

Why So Much Hate?

Apparently, people are developing insulin resistance and type II diabetes at alarming rates. And, because insulin’s function is to carry blood sugar into the cells, sugar is getting blamed.

In fact, when I was diagnosed with PCOS at 15 after a hormonal blood panel, the doctors said: PCOS is caused by insulin resistance. Watch your carbs. Keep your weight down.

Ummmm. Ok?

So I went on the Atkins diet. At 15. I wasn’t even close to being “overweight.”

We are villainizing sugar all over the place. Not just in extremist diet beliefs like Paleo, and fad diet books like Atkins, but in the doctors office too.

Here is what WebMD has to say about how insulin resistance is diagnosed:

“There is no simple test to diagnose insulin resistance syndrome. Rather, your doctor may suspect the syndrome if you have three of the following:

  • A waist size of 40 inches or more in men and 35 inches or more in women
  • Increased levels of triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood)
  • Low HDL, or “good,” cholesterol level (Less than 40 mg/dL for men and 50 mg/dL for women)
  • High blood pressure of 130/85 or higher, or being treated for high blood pressure
  • Fasting blood glucose levels of 100 mg/dL or above, or being treated for diabetes

The current epidemic of obesity in children also puts them at risk for the development of insulin resistance syndrome.”

It all seems quite arbitrary to me.

But I had a serious serious fear of sugar. It could not be trusted. And neither could my eating. Let’s not even get into the fact that this started me on a yo-yo diet and starve/binge eating disorder that consumed the majority of my life for the next 10 years. But that can be another topic for another day.

All I knew was: I had insulin resistance. This was bad. I also shouldn’t eat sugar or carbs because this is bad for insulin resistance.

The Good News

The good news is…. they are wrong.

They are wrong they are wrong!

Sugar is not the cause of these problems at all. Instead it is an innocent and accidental accomplice in a much more complicated process.

It was so hard for me to finally unravel my sugar fear. Here are a few things that started my sugar-is-fine-wake-up-call:

1. Robb Wolf’s Podcast. Yes I used to listen to Robb Wolf’s podcast. Robb Wolf is a Paleo Guru, who advocates for a very low carb plan of eating. And I will never forget something he said about living off of fat for energy instead of carbs (I paraphrase): “When you become a fat burner, it increases your insulin resistance. It actually puts you in a more insulin resistant state, but thats ok, because you are not eating enough carbs for that to be a problem”. 

I remember thinking…. WHAT!?!?!?!?!?! That is not what I want at ALL. I am trying to make my body work BETTER! Not become more insulin resistant! How is this even logical!?

2. Matt Stone at 180 Degree Health. He wrote a new post on eating carbs improving your glucose clearance– and here is an old one on why insulin resistance is not a sign of overconsumption, but of starvation. He has lots of theories and science that you can read. But basically, low carb slows your body down. And introducing carbs again, will in time speed your body back up again, which makes it work better. We are making things work worse by taking carbs out of the diet.

3. Ray Peat, and another blogger to decipher him: Danny Roddy. Ray peat has done extensive research on the thyroid, and though sort of a sect of Paleo (he doesn’t really advocate for grains), his writings have helped me to bust my fear of sugar. Danny Roddy writes here about how sugar actually has anti-stress functions, and how running on fat promotes stress. (Of course, if I took to heart everything they wrote I would have a debilitating fear of Polyunsaturated fat. But I choose not to, because food fear is the worst, and even though I don’t think that industrial seed oils are a nourishing part of one’s diet… don’t fear food.)

I intend to write more on the subject of sugar, but maybe not til after I bust up some other shit fears.

Just remember what Mary Poppins said. In fact, I would say it is the medicine.

Read Part 2: Cravings Don’t Need to Be Fought

26 comments

  1. John says:

    Well said! When I was deep in Paleo I was convinced sugar was the root evil of civilization. Since I have been eating it again I feel so much better…hotter body temps, more focused, etc. I am no longer dizzy and lathargeic. Sugar gets the same bad rap the salt does. Both are an important part of your eating.

    • Caroline says:

      “root evil of civilization”. When I was paleo I would think that every single person’s problem was solely because they didn’t eat right, and ate too much sugar. That was the lens through which I saw everything and everyone. So messed!

  2. Ann says:

    Wow, Atkins at 15? Did your doctors know???

    All this research is amazing, and I also really got a kick out of how you refer to the “sects” of various eating philosophies – that is definitely what they are.

    • Caroline says:

      Well, the doctors recommended low-carb. But the real question is : “Your mother encouraged you to do Atkins?” Why yes! Yes she did. Long and arduous food history the two of us have, but I have to see that her goal was always to help me, even if it absolutely did not!

  3. daguttgrl79 says:

    I love this post, weeeeee! That is my expression of joy… excuse me 🙂
    Anyhow, yes I have lots of thoughts and experience with this subject. I have been a sugar fiend all my life! I was raised with a spoon of honey in my mouth, literally. After being on it severely, off it completely, and now on it but with other foods in my diet, I can honestly say it’s not the devil. But i will say that for me, if I were to only live on sugar it would not be such a fun ride. I need all foods and balance, and figured that out after decades of trial and error.
    I was raised by a great-granny who put several tablespoons of sugar into my cereals and milky tea drinks… yes, for real! So I had a super beast sugar/sweet tooth very young. later when I was 13, and became anorexic, I would live on just spoonfuls of jam, but only a couple of bites a day, and was under 90lbs. sugar didn’t seem so bad at that point. later on i started to gain heaps of weight though when i started chowing on nothing but “fat-free fake foods” after i was being pushed to put on weight, and my diet included tons of fat free breads, ketchup, sodas, and rice, all because i thought if it was fat free then it was fine… heck no! and gross. that was the first time i thought sugar was bad because i got chubby again. i cut it out and lost weight, but later on I was binging on sweets galore, but made myself get rid of them. Basically I started to believe that sugar was the cause of all things bad in my life and hated myself for craving sweets but couldn’t figure out how to eat them and had the worst relationship with food. bullcrap. i was really messed up, it was not sugar’s fault.
    well now i eat all foods and realized that for me it’s not about sugar, it’s about having some of everything. before i was afraid of real food and would feast on sugar because i thought of it as a “non-food” so in my sick mind it meant it was “free”… then i would hate myself for having it because it felt nasty, it was just one big painful cycle. ugh.
    these days i know that if i have straight chocolate syrup on an empty stomach, i will feel really sick and the taste is not worth the physical pain. since i “like myself” now, eating straight chocolate syrup is really not what i want, and i finally discovered the joy of eating! and of using condiments like chocolate syrup as an enhancer to other foods, like pie, ice creams and nuts, not as its own food group, lol. if i am craving something sweet, i enjoy it. but i’m not guzzling syrups anymore and feeling better for it. i will admit that i put an embarrassing amount of sugar in my coffee at times, and would like to reduce it only because it it is so darn sweet, it actually makes my eyes twitch. yes, i stil have issues.

    • Caroline says:

      Yes, sugar alone is not great. I was 80/10/10 raw vegan for a while and it was not pleasant! I could binge myself into a stupor/high on fruit. EEEESH! It is amazing what we have both put ourselves through and how the villain has always been so clear, but … the changed so quickly to the next thing. Very strange tree! 🙂

      • daguttgrl79 says:

        Wow, that 80/10 is hardcore. I tried it for about 2 days and it was an ‘interesting’ experience; I feasted on 30 pounds of fruit and carried a food baby but it just propelled my craving for a burger.
        That was not too long ago, and I’m sure since I’m “sober” now my body is reacting aggressively if it senses that I’m trying to trick it with a new way of eating and diet things. Seriously I think my body just gave me a big F You last year and said Enough! I threw in the proverbial white towel and let my body win, for once. But I’m a stubborn goat so I still keep trying silly things every so often. It’s my old diseased mind as they like to say in 12 steps, lol. Honestly, I think my mind was diseased before the food issue!

      • Caroline says:

        i did it for three months back when I was raw vegan about… 5 years ago. It was my effort to make it work and heal me of all my worldly problems (hormones) and it just made of it worse. Of course! My body and brain freak out too if they think I am forcing it to do anything diet-like at all!

  4. Camila says:

    I think part of the issue is how badly our tastebuds are messed up from non-nutritious food and probably zinc deficiencies. Once all that is cleansed out, I can have appropriate amounts of sugar, or not really feel like it, in pure form or fructose. And it’s important to destress/sleep because I truly crave more of it to keep the ol’ adrenals going in tired times.

    p.s. any thoughts on why, to this day, I STILL crave DIET soda, even though I cut it out a couple years back from my daily can(s)? I’ll cave every once in a while (couple of weeks) but MAN, i want it EVERY day, regardless of energy level. anyone resonate?

    • Caroline says:

      Ooh, I dunno! I definitely was diet soda obsessed for a few years. But I am not anymore. In fact I haven’t had a diet soda in …6 years! However, I have friends who crave it more than anything else in the world. Is it a caffeine thing? Do you drink coffee? (i do….) But I drink kombucha for that fizzy, sort of sweet taste. Tried it? (And, yes… I have one every day. It is my most expensive habit. currently sipping a mango one. I should learn to make them)

      Yea, I agree on the deficiencies end. I had the idea yesterday that the feeling of being surrounded by fake “boardwalk foods” feels like starving, even though you may be calorically sated, there is this desire for more and more and more because your body is craving a deep nutrition you (maybe accidentally) are denying it. I tend to come from the angle of mental diet problems. But, I really am an advocate for real food. It is just hard to push both at the same time, because people like ME get confused and crazy and dogmatic!

      There is something all-encompassing about the “French Paradox”. Because it is rooted in real, whole, high-quality foods. Saturated fats, ample carbs. But it also allows for that joie-de-vivre. Let’s celebrate! Cake! Wine! But in reasonable moderation…. That really is the answer. Reverence for food, without fear. I think that is helped by the cultural ritual of good, real food and meals. Because caring about food can be isolating without that. Only problem is the books “French Women Don’t Get Fat”, brilliant as the title is, and nearly true, but it is turning the focus to something that stresses people out, leaves bigger bodies out and invites followers to get on the bandwagon focusing on looks instead of nourishment. Agh I dunno. Tangent! Balance!

      • Camila says:

        I love coffee, but I drink 8 oz 1/2 caf. in the morning because it sends me dizzy and into heart arrhythmia (1 cup makes me sweat). I love Kombucha and make my own ‘mock’ beverage (lime fizzy water + stevia/honey + lime/lemon juice + ACV…delicious!) BUT I specifically crave the COLA flavor that nothing can reproduce. Hm.

        I also agree with the whole not being obsessive over ‘real’ food but can’t seem to hit the ‘eating out’ phase. So worried about those Omega 6s. 🙂 But I realize that fear just attracts the object of fear so I try to visualize eating out and being happy and how THAT keeps one healthy (avoided the word ‘slim’) rather than “I’ll get fat if…”

      • Caroline says:

        Ooh, I’m gonna try that mock beverage. I dunno what the cola craving is! Did you ever try those health food store cola things with… xylitol and stevia in it or whatever? Zevia?

        I honestly know the fear of the restaurant omega 6s. But one of the worst parts of paleo for me was not being able to eat out and socialize in restaurants. It is one of my favorite things to do! And being afraid of that food was so sad for me, like I was denying a part of my soul. But I still get a little anxious over some foods. But if it is… like once or twice a week, that has GOT to be ok. And all my fears are of me ballooning up if I eat a drop of industrial seed oils- when really… it does not work like that…

      • John says:

        Yes…that was the worst for me on Paleo…resteraunts. Not being able to “see” exactly what was in the food…turned off by the lack of grass-fed offerings…and being really manic that I couldn’t weigh my food for a calorie count. Man, the Dark Ages for me for sure. Now I eat and work out like Chief.

  5. I think it is important to distinguish between refined sugar and white flours, and wholefood carb sources. They are not the same, and despite what paleo claims, brown rice and refined sugar are not the same to the body. It is perfectly possible to eliminate sugar but still eat plenty of carbs to avoid the concerns you raised above.

    Having said that, some thrive on paleo and feel better than ever (not me lol). Each to his own, I say. One person saying “Sugar makes me tired and gives me headaches” need not be threatening to another person who eats intuitively and doesn’t experience any negative effects from sugar consumption. I don’t see a reason to try to debunk them if that is their personal experience. If having four children has taught me anything, it’s that we are all programmed genetically to be fundamentally different and will respond very differently to similar environmental conditions.

    I haven’t tried kombucha but water kefir is very easy to make, and is fizzy if you close the lid for a while.

    • The funny thing is, the more I read your blog, the more I am starting to think that sugar reallyis addictive. Why are people eating it if they knowit makes them feel unwell? Why so desperate to defend it? Refined sugar is a completely unnatural substance, equating it with wholegrains etc and making out that it is e necessary part of a healthy diet… why would someone do that? Why not just eat potatoes, wholegrains and so on for carbs and save yourself the bother of dealing with the symptoms? Hmm… this discussion is giving me a lot of food for thought.

      • Caroline says:

        The thing is, for me, sugar really doesn’t make me feel unwell. I feel fine. Now that my body has acclimated after LC paleo, I can eat quite a bit and feel perfectly good, sleeping better, and my body temperatures are now up at 98.6. The absurd thing I did to myself, was fear something that I could actually handle just fine. Same with gluten, I am not celiac. I pretended I was gluten intolerant to make paleo easier and let people leave me alone while I tried to cure my hormones. And maybe I am “intolerant” like they claim nearly everyone is, but I have no proof of it, and no adverse affects from eating gluten. And going gluten free didn’t do anything for my hormones.

        I would never try to say you don’t have an intolerance to the sugar, we ARE all different. I also agree that refined sugar is unnatural and unnecessary. I am a whole foods advocate. However, there is something liberating for me to eat some refined sugar in ice cream after years of thinking it was going to be the end of my life as I know it, and be fine. So fine that I don’t even crave ice cream the next day (after a few days of going nuts on the stuff).

        So, I am debunking the fact that sugar has an inherent evilness to it. It does not, and has actually improved some parts of my health. It may not do the same for everyone, which is why I am an advocate of intuitive eating and everyone having different needs.

        I understand this means we have different problems with our relationship to food. Mine really was quite psychological, and though I would never say there is nothing I am intolerant to, and nothing I am eating is hurting my health, it just doesn’t make sense for me to come from that perspective anymore, because the unnecessary fear of foods has made me very crazy- which has turned out to be my biggest problem! 🙂

  6. I agree with everything you’ve said here. The difference with me is that I get genuine physical symptoms from several foods including gluten, dairy and sugar. And the fear of food that you talk about is not something I have really experienced as an ongoing issue. There is a different feel to saying “I don’t want to eat at Pizza Hut because the risk of cross contamination is too high for me”, which is a reasonable choice for someone highly sensitive to gluten like me, and something like what you described with omega 6s. Maybe my inability to stick to a strict food plan has it’s advantages lol, it’s just not feasible for me to get that scared. Or maybe if I had a greater tendency to be fearful of foods, I’d be better at avoiding the ones that bother me.

    I find that how I do with avoiding a food depends on how bad the symptoms are if I eat it, and how addictive/ compulsive I feel about it. For example, I have had no problems whatsoever avoiding gluten, it makes me so ill, and I don’t crave it. Dairy causes minor symptoms at least in the short term, and I do crave it, and so I keep eating it. Sugar causes major symptoms but I crave it strongly, hence I eat it. Interestingly, avoiding gluten has not lead to me craving gluten foods, I don’t even miss the ones I used to love particularly. That’s why I think there must be more to my cravings that just restriction, otherwise I would be craving gluten foods. I don’t care if I can’t have cake or french bread, if I can have ice cream and chocolate, even though I loved them just as much before I went gluten free. The ultimate is the combination of caffeine, dairy and sugar…. mocha with cream anyone? lol

  7. Edward says:

    Robb Wolf is not nearly as dogmatic as he used to be, although his approach is still very much focused on Paleo. He will often respond to a listener’s question with “He dude, you need more carbs! Get some Hagen Daz or a potato, man!”

    By the way, Caroline, from looking at your Gravatar profile, I would never have guessed that you had ever had any health problems. To paraphrase a popular expression, “You glow, girl!”

    • C says:

      That is very good to hear about Robb Wolf! And sadly about that photo, it was taken when I was very paleo! And very crazy 😉 But yea, I don’t look the most unhealthy person that every existed, but looks can be deceiving. 🙂

  8. penny_oz says:

    I want to read this article but the link doesn’t work. I think Matt stone has changed his website format….. the artilce was ” why insulin resistance is not a sign of overconsumption, but of starvation” could you elaborate more by any chance?

    Loving this blog! I recently came across Matt stones blog and have found it very useful, everyone thinks i am crazy when I say I am going to try down 3000 calories each day and eat a tonne of sugar, I cop a lot of criticism form family members. I can’t make anyone read the blog but why I try to heal my relationship with food quantities it doesn’t help to have people sit their and comment on my over indulgence in certain foods ( I swear I spent ten years from 15 eating mostly spinach leaves all day, yet they have a problem with this! ). I t doesn’t bother me so much , it certainly doesn’t stop me eating! ha . You can get a lot done when your not hungry and not thinking about food or exercise ( those with eating disorders or on diets no exactly what I mean!). thanks so much x

  9. Giulia ("Julia") G. says:

    I am Italian. If the fear of refined carbs and sugar were justified, all Italians would suffer from insulin resistance or diabetes and be grossly overweight. In fact, in Italy we eat a lot of sugar and refined carbs since early childhood, when our parents and (especially) grandparents stuff us with delicious treats to show us that we are loved. 🙂 And no mealis considered to be complete without some white bread or breadsticks. Those of us who grew up in the 80s even ate tons of really, really junky sweets: the (hydrogenated-fat-laden and tongue-burning-sweet) Italian versions of Twinkies and DingDongs. I am not advocating eating an Italian 80s diet, which may be just a little TOO unhealthy (intuitive eating does not necessarily mean a constant junk fest, and a reasonably varied nutrition is a good thing). However, carb-loving Italians are among the slimmest, healthiest, and longest-living Europeans. And no: Contrary to the common health-sect propaganda, we do NOT walk everywhere: Although we do walk more than Texans, for example, we also love our cars. 🙂 Oh, and we do not eat low-fat, either, as cheese and oil (and even butter in the North) are very important parts of our cuisine. The only difference is that we do not embrace nutritional fads as enthusiastically as other nations, whose cuisine is less traditionally codified and culturally fixed. We do, however, have our fare share of orthorexics as well, but they are still the minority of the population. So, there is one argument in favor of intuitive eating, especially when combined with a specific culinary tradition (not necessarily a Mediterranean one, just a traditional and varied diet).

    • Caroline says:

      Beautiful Giulia! I am always fascinated by European countries and their food habits -and how it seems to balance out so well and easily. Which, is the idea of this site! They are already doing it. For them, is it lack of fear? Lack of yoyo? MORE good foods. MORE nourishing foods? Combination of all of them? Either way: it is telling and awesome.

      I love it. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  10. Giulia ("Julia") G. says:

    PS: Moreover, there is a big difference between stating that diabetics should watch their carb intake and that refined carbs *cause* diabetes…

    • Giulia ("Julia") G. says:

      Well, in Italy and France we have dangerous and exaggerated fears of our own, such as the fear of eating too much, which, in the worst-case scenario, can lead to the development of anorexia and bulimia. However, it is a fear of eating too many calories in general, and not a demonization of specific food groups or macronutrients. Although neither phobia is a good thing, I find that the demonization of certain specific types of food is sneakier because it can easily pass as “healthy eating”: While most people would be very concerned if their daughter or best friend were to survive (or try to survive) on a yoghurt and a half banana a day, who would disapprove of “healthy eating”? Except that being orthorexic is not healthy,: It is an obsessive all-or nothing approach that breeds guilt and misery. I was first confronted with such attitude while studying in Sweden, where I first encountered the demonization of certain food groups by the media. There are several reasons why Swedes are more vulnerable to fad diets, and describing them would require a separate comment. Since I was a vane, conscientious and scientifically minded young woman, I jumped right on board (first with the low-fat, and then with the low-carb fad), thus starting a ten-year long struggle with yo-yo dieting, orthorexia, and food-related guilt. Paradoxically, my average weight (which is just an abstraction, since, as a yo-yo dieter, I could never reach a steady weight equilibrium) increased by 10-15 pounds, during that time. Then, about three years ago, I decided to scream “f-it!”, ditch all the fads and go back to my culinary roots. It was not easy, and I am still struggling with it, but I feel that I making steady progress. There are things, such as long-term human nutrition, that cannot be scientifically engineered on the basis of a few simplistic, general principles, because they involved to many intertwined and complex variables, which cannot be isolated and controlled. Therefore, the best way of attaining a balanced diet is by trial and error, and nothing is more tried-and-true than a century-old culinary tradition (of course, followed as a general guideline and source of inspiration, since I could not possibly spend four-five hours a day behind the stove as my grandmother did). However, by cooking all her food from scratch, she probably burned all her calories before even eating them! 🙂 Thanks for your reply and have a nice day.

  11. Giulia ("Julia") G. says:

    PPS: Sorry: “fair share,” not “fare share”. 🙂 Typing in a hurry, sorry.

  12. Giulia ("Julia") G. says:

    PS: Since you are wondering, the health secret of most Mediterranean cuisines is, in my opinion, a unique and unintentional blend of excellent weather and centuries of widespread poverty. The first condition gives us tasty and affordable vegetables (although food prices have been soaring everywhere), while the second condition has taught us to eat a little bit of everything, whatever our forefathers could get a hold of, with an emphasis on cheap vegetables (by Northern-European or American standards, we are all semi-vegetarians), and with meat practically as a side dish. Even the wealthiest farmers, in fact, could hardly afford to slaughter the farm’s dairy cows on a regular basis, and massive daily meat consumption, especially of beef, was restricted to the high aristocracy. Fish and dairy products, by contrast, became the primary protein sources. Being traditionally poor, however, has also taught us not to vilify anything edible: Our forefathers were extremely grateful when, on occasion, they had a chance of eating something tasty and full of much-needed energy, such as delicate white bread, fat, or sweets. The dramatic food shortages our grandparents experienced during WWII, moreover, further reinforced such thankful attitude: After being forced to eat sawdust-enriched bread rolls and stray-cat meat fried in machine oil (not exaggerating!), my grandparents would never have dreamt of calling a dessert or a slice of bread and butter “junk food.”

Comments are closed.