We dig into the research on whether or not you should quit sugar and if sugar is making you fat and sick enough to cut it out permanently from your diet.
Should You QUIT sugar?
With some of the trendy diets promoting a “sugar detox” and even scares in the media about how sugar can “feed cancer,” it’s no wonder we may start to question if we really want to have sugar in our diets at all! We’ll talk about what sugar is, and look beyond just the little packets we pour into our morning coffee. We’ll answer the questions on what sugar means for our health and answer the big question about whether or not we should quit sugar for good.
What is Sugar?
First off, I want to define sugar, because I have heard a lot of folks talking about lumping ALL carbohydrates into the umbrella term “sugar”, and while they’re the same in some cases, they aren’t in others.
Sugar is basically just a form of carbs along with starches and fibres. There are a few types of carbohydrates depending on how many sugar molecules there are in the compound. One sugar molecule or two sugar molecules together are considered SUGARS (think sucrose, lactose, maltose, glucose, etc.). More than two sugars held together are considered STARCHES and FIBRES (like sweet potatoes, and breads). Aside from fibres (which we lack the proper enzymes to break down), all carbohydrates eventually break down into the most usable form for us – super simple sugars like glucose. When we consume starches (like a potato) that have multiple sugars combined, our body has to break them down which takes time, so it keeps us fuller longer and raises our blood sugar slower. When we consume sugars (like a spoonful of honey), there’s not a lot of work for your body to do to them so they spike our blood sugar quickly and leave us hungry soon after.
Where are Sugars vs Other Carbohydrates Found?
- Dairy and alternatives
Cow’s milk, soy milk, rice milk, yogurt
Apples, bananas, berries, pears, etc
- Added sugars (simple)
Honey, molasses, brown rice syrup, agave, maple syrup, white sugar, brown sugar
Starch & Fibre Sources:
- Starchy veggies
Potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, winter squash
- Grains & other starches
Rice, quinoa, pasta, breads, noodles, etc.
Apples, bananas, berries, pears, etc
As you can see, there are BOTH simple and starchy/ fibre carbs in fruits – so does this make fruit a YAY or a NAY if you cut out sugar?
Also, what about dairy that is loaded with protein and healthy fats shown to help slow the absorption and reduce blood sugar spikes? Is that out too because it’s SUGAR?
Let’s Talk About FREE Sugar
This is where talk about free sugar comes into play.
When it comes to food products we typically buy, there are naturally occurring sugars, like the sugar found in fruits (fructose) and dairy (lactose). But as soon as you take that sugar away from the naturally occurring source, it becomes a “free sugar”. The WHO recommends to keep our added sugar to 10% of our energy intake daily. So if you eat 2000 calories a day that would mean up to 50 grams of free sugar, or 10 teaspoons would be a-okay.
So where do you find free sugar?
- Added sugars like white sugar, brown sugar, honey, agave, maple syrup (or other syrups) etc.
- Fruit juice
Fruit juice is FREE, but whole fruit is not because it comes equipped with fibres that slow down its absorption. For more information on some of the different added sugars as well as some artificial sweeteners, check out this article!
So to recap, the WHO recommends you cap the “free” or added sugars in your diet to 10% of your caloric intake, but that DOES NOT include sugars in dairy or fruit OR general carbohydrates in foods like whole grains, pulses or starchy veggies.
If these “Free sugars” are a serious no no, aren’t all sugars kind of bad too? Can’t we just quit all sugar and thrive?
I don’t know if thriving is the term I would use to associate myself if I quit sugar or cut out carbs. Here’s why:
They contain FIBRE!
Some sources of carbohydrates (whole grains, pulses, starchy veg) and yes, even sources of sugar (fruits) contain fibre, which is actually a type of carbohydrate that we don’t digest. Fibre simply passes through our digestive system and helps keep our bowels healthy. Fibre can help prevent constipation, diarrhea, promote weight loss, manage blood sugar and high cholesterol. It can also help reduce the risk for certain cancers and heart disease. Fibre generally is found in vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Women should aim to get 25 grams every day and men should aim for 38 grams according to Health Canada. You can read more about healthy bathroom visits and fibre here or check out the Toilet Talk. Let’s keep the constipation away with some high-fibre carbs.
The Institute of Medicine and Canadian Diabetes Association found that our brains need sugar. In fact, they need 130 grams of sugar per day! This is because the number one source of energy for our brains is glucose (which is the purest source of simple sugar). You don’t have to eat pure glucose to get the benefits and actually we wouldn’t recommend that. But any carbs will eventually be broken down into their building blocks to help feed our brain and other muscles. Carbs are brain food!
Risks of a Low-Carb Diet
While a low-carb diet has been shown to be effective for weight loss in this Meta-Analysis, we don’t know what the long term-effects and safety of these diets or if people can stay on them for long periods of time (remember – the best diet is one you can stay on forever). You may also remember from this infographic some of the not so good things about low-carb diets. I’m talking about grumpiness and bad breath due to ketosis, low fibre and constipation, stress on the kidneys, and even nutrition deficiencies (because carbohydrate-containing foods like whole grains, veggies and fruit have a lot of important vitamins and minerals too!).
If you’ve checked out this article on sports nutrition, you may remember how important carbohydrates are for both cardio and strength training workouts. We need some carbs before an intense cardio, and after and in some cases depending on your exercise regime, going straight for the simple sugars is best! So if you exercise, you DO need carbs!
Healthy Eating Habits
There has been some research that’s suggested that food restrictions can lead to binge eating, disordered eating behaviours, and clinical eating disorders. This even extends to those who have had to follow strict diets (type 1 diabetes or strictly kosher diets, for example) having higher incidence of eating disorders. Restrictions, including cutting out carbohydrates or quitting sugar cold turkey, are not ideal for our mental or physical health, even if it is perceived to be healthy. You can read more on disordered eating and orthorexia.
Impact on Social Life
Okay, so let’s say you’re still eating dairy, fruit, and whole grains but have decided to eliminate ALL free sugar.
You can FORGET about:
- Having a cocktail or wine filled girls’ night– those cocktails pack in a TON of extra sugar (for lighter cocktail options check out these recipes!).
- Restaurant dinners, take-out meals, or lunch on the go – sugar has a sneaky way of being in all these foods, even if they don’t taste sweet. It can be found in sauces, dips, salad dressings, and marinades.
- Dessert. And why would you not want to eat dessert? I mean having dessert everyday all day maybe is not so ideal but a cookie with coffee or a slice of cake at a birthday sounds like a must to me.
- Coffee shops. Those drinks have a TON of sugar. Check out these made over ones that are lighter and more delish.
Guys. This is JUST added sugar. We’re not even talking about a total sugar or carbohydrate elimination. Imagine cutting out fruit, all noodles, breads, grains, dairy and starchy veggies?!? Um, nope.
So Should You Quit Sugar? Bottom Line
- Sugar is just basically just a type of carbohydrates that get broken down in our bodies to use as fuel and energy.
- Carbs can be found in all kinds of foods: dairy, fruit, some veggies, grains/starches, and added sugars
- Our bodies NEED sugar (and other carbs like fibre) for so many reasons including brain function and sports recovery.
- Don’t cut out sugar or carbs entirely, you’ll be missing some major food groups and nutrients, probably get grumpy, and it’s not sustainable! If you’re trying to cut down on your processed food or added sugar intake, talk to a Registered Dietitian for some guidance and try to focus on choosing unprocessed, whole grain, and fruit varieties of carbohydrates more often!
- Having a balanced diet for your body and your mind includes eating carbs, so enjoy that slice of cake! Keeping our eating habits healthy and in-check means a healthy body AND a healthy mind.
So tell me:
Have you quit sugar?
Are you thinking of cutting back on carbs? Why or why not?
Contribution by RD2B Maxine Seider
Updated on October 23rd, 2020
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian (RD), regulated by the Ontario College of Dietitians. She is a mom, YouTuber, Blogger, award winning cookbook author, media coach specializing in food and nutrition influencers, and a frequent contributor to national publications like Healthline and on national broadcast TV shows.