Has Our Sugar Fixation Gone Too Far?

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By Johannah Sakimura


Sugar is enemy of the hour in the nutrition world. While I’m glad that recommendations to limit added sugar (and especially sugary drinks) are now being heard loud and clear, some people are taking this healthy advice to potentially unhealthy extremes, cutting out every last gram of sugar in their diet, or avoiding healthy foods like produce and low-fat dairy. That’s nothing new, really — the American public’s approach to diet and nutrition tends to border on fanatical — but it does obscure the issue and distract people from other equally important health goals. And folks who drastically slash their sugar intake may have trouble sticking with these changes permanently; making moderate cuts is probably the smarter solution in the long run. Here are three signs we’re taking the anti-sugar campaign too far:


  • We’re cutting out healthy foods that contain natural sugars. When experts advise people to cut back on sugar, they’re referring to the added sugar found in processed foods like sweetened beverages, cereals, and baked goods, not the naturally occurring sugar found in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. As a nutritionist, it’s frustrating to hear people say they’re cutting out carrots, or pineapple, or bananas — perfectly nutritious foods with vitamins, fiber, and plenty more to offer — because they’re “too sugary.” We should all be angling to eat more vegetables and fruits, not less. The same goes for low-fat dairy products like plain milk and yogurt. Sure, they provide a few grams of sugar (in the form of lactose), but they’re also delivering high-quality protein, calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and other key nutrients. On the other hand, foods high in added sugar, like soda, flavored coffee drinks, desserts, and other sweets tend to provide mostly empty calories. Focus on limiting these and other foods high in added sugar, and forget any concerns about the natural sugars found in healthy whole foods.


  • We micromanage every last gram of added sugar. There’s a lot of talk about the “hidden sugars” found in unexpected places like salad dressings, peanut butter, and spaghetti sauce. It makes complete sense to shop around and select brands that have less sugar (as long as you consider the overall healthfulness of the products as well), but many of these products contain just a couple of grams of sugar. Rather than fretting about the 2 grams of sugar in a serving of peanut butter, focus on the most concentrated sources of added sugar in your diet, especially those you eat most often. Replacing these foods with better choices will have a much greater impact on your daily sugar intake and your health. Skipping dessert one night (or even replacing your sweet fix with a bowl of fresh fruit) could spare you 10 teaspoons of sugar in a single day. That’s a much bigger savings than the 6 or 8 grams of sugar you might get from a barbecue sauce you eat a few times a month. Cutting back everywhere is best — but make your primary target the sugar in foods you eat nearly every day, including your morning coffee, breakfast cereal, and favorite snacks. And remember, adding just one sugary treat, like a syrupy cocktail, second scoop of ice cream, or a few handfuls of M&Ms from your co-worker’s candy bowl, can do far more damage to your daily added sugar allowance than the few grams in your salad dressing.


  • We focus too much on sugar, and not enough on everything else in our diet. Obsessing about sugar can be dangerous if you fixate on that aspect of your diet to the exclusion of everything else. After all, the backbone of a healthy diet should be whole, unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruits, beans and lentils, whole grains, and lean proteins — none of which should contain added sugar. As I have written many times before, it’s just as important (if not more so) to to focus on what you should be eating more of, not just what you should be eating less of. Consuming a diet of packaged, processed food that’s low in added sugar isn’t the solution for optimal health.


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