My ears are pretty attuned to food-related comments (which is expected, given the nature of my job) and I find myself zeroing in on conversations about nutrition and eating more than other people probably do. While I’m mostly unphased by diet-centric viewpoints, it always makes me a little sad when people say things like, “I’m trying to avoid sugar,” or “I heard that sugar is as toxic as cigarettes.”
I won’t deny that many Americans eat in an unbalanced way. Many chronic diseases are influenced by poor nutrition, meaning that not eating enough nutritious food predisposes a person’s body to degeneration and dysfunction. What this does not mean is that chronic diseases are directly caused by consuming sugar, in and of itself.
Today more than ever, I find myself in conversation with individuals who are fearful that sugar will a) cause them to become ill, or b) make them fat. Below are a few of the main reasons why I think that demonizing sugar is not okay.
Sugar won’t make you sick.
I have yet to come across any evidence that indicates that including sugar in the diet of a healthy person is independently causative of disease. However, I have a plethora of peer-reviewed scientific studies that demonstrate that nutritional deficiencies directly influence the development of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Sure, eating only donuts and never salad is a problem — but not because donuts contain sugar.
There is, however, a significant level of evidence demonstrating that the psychological fallout resulting from diet extremes is extremely harmful. Avoiding sugar (or engaging in other forms of diet behavior) significantly increases the likelihood of binge eating, poor self-image, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Enjoying sweet foods isn’t a problem; Binge eating them is.
Sugar isn’t the reason you are unhappy with the size and shape of your body.
Enjoying a cookie or an ice cream cone doesn’t cause body dissatisfaction. Rather, this attitude comes from our body-obsessed culture, which values a thin physique above and beyond other body types. Poor body image is the result of a hyper critical attitude, and often is the twin demon of disordered eating. Therefore, blaming sugar for our body image woes is entirely unproductive, and avoiding sugar likewise won’t fix them.
To heal from poor self image (including body dissatisfaction, negative self-talk, and a repetitive cycle of dieting frustration) we need to address the underlying thoughts, values, and beliefs that fuel our demons. Trying to change body image by avoiding sugar is like trying to train for a marathon by sitting on the couch and chewing bubble gum. Not only will we never reach the goal, we’ll probably worsen our condition.
Being afraid of sugar gives it more power in your life than it deserves.
Instead of evaluating our successes in light of arbitrary numbers like macros, calories, or sugar grams, I’d argue we should focus more on the content of our character. Obsession with food and dieting detracts from our ability to truly thrive and subsequently bring blessing to others. At the end of our lives, if all we can say is that we successfully avoided sugar, it would be a great tragedy. Life is so much more than eating and drinking (Matthew 6:25.)
Sugar, or food in any form for that matter, is not the central determinant of a fulfilling life. In fact, I’d argue that the less we think about our food, our bodies, or ourselves in general, the happier and more satisfied we are likely to be.