Sunday, March 16, 2014

Is Sugar Really So Bad?

We are bombarded with messages about the evils of sugar.  Sugar is blamed for bad behavior in kids, diabetes, heart disease, cancer... the list goes on and on. But is sugar really so bad?

I was convinced that sugar was bad

I am the type of person who tends to act quickly and jump right in, so when I started learning about how "bad" sugar was, I immediately started to restrict it.  For over 5 years, I restricted my sugar intake, and took my family along for the ride with me. I thought that dessert was something to only enjoy once in awhile, and I still felt a little guilty about eating dessert even infrequently.  Over time, I kept reducing our sugar intake more and more, thinking that being even more strict would make us healthier. 

But guess what? Our sugar consumption was less and less, but we didn't become any more healthy.  And I noticed that my daughter was becoming fixated on sweets. In my quest to give her the best possible health, she was allowed to eat very little sugar her whole life.  But something definitely seemed out of balance since she was still getting sick very frequently.  When she was 4, I noticed my daughter was starting to hoard sweets, and she even exhibited some binge behavior by sneaking a large tub of raisins into her room and eating them all.

Did the experience of my 4-year-old hoarding and binging raisins wake me up? Nope.  I was still buying into the "sugar is evil" mantra. And by this time we were even strictly following the GAPS diet, because I was so sure that if I tweaked our diet enough we would finally find full health. I was wrong. 

My wake-up call

Two years ago I was hitting rock-bottom on the GAPS Diet I didn't understand how I could be feeling worse and worse when I was trying to eat so well.  I finally had a wake up call through learning about Matt Stone's Diet Recovery plan. Matt encouraged people to actually follow their body's cues on what to eat, and not to restrict any particular foods just because they were thought to be "bad". While this went against everything I thought I knew about nutrition, I was so desperate to find a solution that I gave it a try.

My body was asking for ice cream, lots of ice cream.  So I started eating lots of homemade ice cream and was shocked at the results. I felt so much better and my body was showing signs of better health: a more normal menstrual cycle and increased waking body temperature.  My energy levels were so much higher, and I realized that I had been going through life half-asleep.

This experience made me re-think my conclusions about sugar. If eating more sugar could make me feel so good and improve my body's indicators of health, maybe sugar wasn't really so bad after all.

Some surprising facts about our bodies and sugar

As I started researching more about sugar, I learned that the body actually prefers to use glucose (sugar) as a fuel, and the brain prefers to use ONLY glucose as a fuel. When there isn't enough glucose in the diet, the body undertakes the process of gluconeogenesis, whereby the adrenal glands send messages to the liver and kidneys to convert protein and fat into glucose. These messages from the adrenal glands come in the form of cortisol, which is one of the body’s stress hormones. The body sees a lack of sugar as a stress, and in the long term this can be detrimental.

When the body is deprived of sugar for an extended period of time, the adrenal glands can become overworked since they have to keep sending signals for gluconeogenesis over and over again.  Not having enough sugar in the diet can also lead to other problems because the body is constantly in a state of elevated stress. 

Breastmilk and sugar

One of the things that makes humans different from other animals is the size of our brains.  And given that our brains prefer to use only glucose (sugar) as a fuel, it seems like we would naturally need to consume more sugar than other species.  Guess what? Human breastmilk contains twice as much sugar as milk from other mammals such as cows.  In fact, the food that most closely resembles breastmilk in nutrient composition is full-fat ice cream. No wonder so many kids crave ice cream!

Letting my kids have more ice cream

I'm not advocating that we eat sugar all day every day, but I am convinced that sugar is a healthy part of our diets. In our home, I am finding the middle ground when it comes to sugar. Instead of looking at sugar as an evil that must be restricted, I am valuing sugar as a part of our diets. When my kids want to eat ice cream, I let them. I am making sure that they have access to homemade sweets, a few storebought treats, and even some juice a few times a month.

When my 4-year-old son asks for maple syrup in his raw milk, I go ahead and stir a little in. I know that our bodies do need sugar, and his natural desire to make his milk more-closely-resemble breastmilk makes sense. I hope that never again will one of my children feel so deprived of a food that they start to hoard and binge. I am learning to trust our bodies and their guidance with regards to which foods we eat.

I prefer to use unrefined sweeteners, such as sucanat, local raw honey, and Grade B maple syrup. I do still avoid high-fructose corn syrup and agave nectar. But I am also feeling a little freedom, and not stressing about a little white sugar here and there.

Do you restrict sugar intake in your home?  Have you found a place of balance with sweets?

Want to read more about how sugar may not be so bad after all? Check out these posts:
Sugar: Prisoner of War by Elizabeth Walling
Sugar: Pure, White, and Awesome by Danny Roddy 

If you want to try some homemade ice cream, check out these recipes: 

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Farrah said...

Very interesting post-especially about the sugar content in breast milk! That is great that you were able to recognize signs such as your daughter's hoarding behaviors as a reason to do a little research. The only thing that continues to baffle me though, is how scarce sugar was in prehistoric times. What did they do then if their diets were mostly protein/veggie with occasional fruit? Overall, I still agree with you that it's not worth it to be extreme and to find a healthy balance. I sometimes worry that being so "sugar-strict" with my kids will also lead them to binging and hoarding when they are old enough to chose their own foods and go crazy with sugar because I am depriving them of it now. I guess it just goes back to the motto my own mother has stuck by and encourages me to stick by when I start to get too "consumed" by trying to have the perfect diet. "Everything in moderation." Thanks for the post!

Sarah Smith said...

Hi Abigail,
I don't know how sugar-scarce traditional diets would have been; seems like it would probably have depended greatly on the region. In places where there were bees, of course there would have been honey. I know there were some traditional diets (such as the Inuit/Eskimos) that had virtually no sugar or fresh fruit/veggies, but I think it is interesting that those cultures also tended to have a shorter life expectancy and seem to age much quicker. The body can manufacture glucose from carbohydrates more easily than from protein and fat, so presumably in diets where there were plenty of carbohydrates (tubers, grains, etc), the body could make plenty of glucose from those foods without taxing the system as much.

Of course, traditional cultures often allowed children to breastfeed to a much later age (3, 4, or even over 5 years old), and in some traditional cultures the men would even breastfeed before going out on big hunting expeditions. I'm sure that in the traditional cultures, they also wouldn't have worried about eating too much fruit when they found it; they probably would have just eaten all the fruit they could until they didn't want any more or the tree ran out.

Bess said...

So glad you posted this today! My little one is sick and not eating. I immediately offered him some ice cream, which he ate. So good to see him eat!!

lynda said...

This is interesting timing for me. My body has been healing for years, to the point where I feel mostly normal anymore, but all of a sudden I took a downturn in the last handful of months with nothing changed in my diet or lifestyle. I was noticing a craving for sweets more and more (we do homemade things with maple syrup or raw honey) but going from a chart I have that lists things your body might really need when you're craving sweets, I kept trying to fill that desire with something more healthy. (never worked btw) A few days ago, I finally gave in and just enjoyed some homemade choc chip cookies and man! did I feel better after that. My brain worked better, my spirit lifted, a tension in my body released. And I wasn't in a low blood sugar state to begin with. It really made me wonder. After reading this, I'm going to be doing some experimenting! It took guts to post this in the age of "sugar is evil," thank you.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, not buying it.

Michelle said...

That's one thing that bothered me about the paleo diets, was this assumption that all traditional diets were the same. I studied sociology and cultures in my master's degree, and the truth is that everything is regional and seasonal. There was no "paleo diet", even in paleolithic times. The paleo diet makes a good book to sell, but it's simply not accurate. There was probably a lot more fruit trees in paleo times, as evidence points to a much warmer tropical climate around the world, as well as tubers and some grains, as Sarah said. Eating fresh and local makes much more sense than following a strict paleo diet.

Anonymous said...

You have lost your mind. I clicked hoping that I would find something informative and I get, "I feel good." Well, I have got a few other illegal drugs that will make you feel the same way. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that you are feeling better and I've read enough to give up on the one size fits all healing journey. But come on! There is nothing slightly redeeming about sugar. Seriously, after what you've been through, to broadcast this with a straight face???

Sarah Smith said...

If you had taken the time to really read the article, you would have seen that my assumptions about sugar were challenged not just by "feeling good", but by some very well-accepted markers of health, including basal body temperature and menstrual cycle.

The insulting, defamatory tone of your comment is uncalled for. If you want to have a difference of opinion, that's great, then let's have a constructive discussion. But if you want to just come out swinging and throwing out insults, you are welcome to go elsewhere. I will be removing any future comments if they are insulting and rude as this one was.

Lianda Ludwig said...

Great article! I commend you on your post that attempts to overcome the Diet Industry's focus on the evil of sugar (and fat, and everything else...). It's so hard to go against the "common knowledge" about what is good or bad for you. I too, loved Matt Stone's books. In particular, when people talk about Paleo, I know immediately think of the photos of modern day Paleo tribes in Africa and elsewhere: small, bad teeth, and not in great shape!
I write for the older crowd of women who are constantly on a diet, and showing them that our body is pretty smart with giving us signals of hunger (and cravings), thirst and being tired. We need to learn to trust ourselves, and nurture ourselves; both with food and stress relief.

Tina said...

Great information, thank you Sarah! I have never thought about it in this way. Eye opening for sure!

Anonymous said...

The bottom line is you should listen to your body. Don't insist that diet A or lifestyle B is "best" for everyone. There is no one GAPS diet, there is no one paleo/primal diet - they can literally vary from person to person. It's chemistry, when you come down to it, and that can vary tremendously. I certainly commend you for listening to your body and making adjustments. If everyone did that, we'd have fewer sick people today..

jagbee said...

Sarah, I love you for posting cannot imagine how this article helped me. When I shared this with my daughter she said "That's what I love about Sarah, she's willing to explore her beliefs." Keep up the GREAT work!

Sarah Smith said...

Oh, thank you!!

joann said...

Thanks for this article. My daughter and I were on full GAPS diet for 8 months - it was pivotal in her healing particularly. Once on the autism spectrum, after 2.5 years she has lost the diagnosis and is thriving. But at that 8 month mark, we both hit a wall. My normal-ranged thyroid TSH range shot up, my hair fell out, I had nearly constant palpitations, cortisol high, estrogen high, monthly cycle wildly irregular and the insomnia was horrific. I started reintroducing more 'safe' starches and carbs and carbs a la Paul Jaminet, but it wasn't until I reintroduced sugar that I really started to turn the corner. The first evening I had ice cream I slept through the night for the first time in over a year. I am still clawing my way back from my Great Hormonal Crash of 2013, but I will never restrict the healthy amounts (for me) of sugar ever again. Thank you Ray Peat, Danny Roddy and Matt Stone.

Amanda said...

I agree! Thank you for writing this! I have restricted sugar from battling yeast problems for years. But there is a happy balance. And I whole heartedly agree about listening to your body...our bodies (if we really know and listen to them) can tell us a lot more than a text book (or articles/diets/theories) can about nutrition and what it really needs. Every body is different...and following a strict protocol that worked for someone else doesn't mean it will work for you.

Anonymous said...

So is the Candida diet too hard on our bodies?

Sarah Smith said...

I think it depends on the person and it depends on how long they do the diet...