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Sugar consumption has decreased significantly over the last 20 years, and yet obesity has continued to climb. Science strongly suggests that sugar is not the cause of obesity, but eating too much sugar does contribute. You don’t need to completely remove sugar from your diet to be healthy (sugar is in many fruits and vegetables), but being aware of where it’s hiding is your best bet to clean up your diet, feel better, and help fight weight gain.

Sugar is not toxic. It’s not a popular sentiment, but the fear of sugar is creating bad, restrictive eating behaviors that might cause more harm than good. So, before you feel the need to cut out all sugars -- and say goodbye to many nutritious fruits and vegetables -- it’s important to clear up what has become a confusing health situation.

“Sugar fear” is a script that has repeated itself in many (frustrating) diet books, articles, and blog posts. Any time a diet or expert blames one food or food group as the cause for all problems, it’s a reason to pause and question the theory. In a world of uncertainty, the one thing that is certain is that there is no magic pill solution or cause of obesity and weight gain.

In the 1980s, scientists suggested that fats were going to kill you. Today, fats are on the path to redemption. In the 1990s, carbs became the villain. Low-carb everything was popular, and you saw the rise of diets like Atkins. And yet, all of those diets ignored a tiny important fact: The “Blue Zones” – the areas where people live the longest in the world – consist of people who follow carb-heavy (up to 70-80%) diets. If carbs were really the issue, these people who be dying earlier.

Decade after decade, a new hypothetical cause is identified as the root of all health problems. Maybe you’ve tried going gluten- or dairy-free, not because you have identified an allergy but because you heard that it was the reason you gained weight. If you have an allergen or sensitivity, removing those foods can make a difference. For everyone else, removing those foods is just a matter of removing calories, which will always result in some weight loss (assuming you won’t replace it with something else).

While limiting sugar isn’t a bad thing (more on that soon), it could also lead to the formation of bad habits and confusion that leave you in a permanent diet spiral.

The “Toxic Sugar” Myth

When you actually look at the research, you’ll find that weight loss always comes down to two factors: calories and protein. Eat enough protein and eat few calories and you’ll lose weight. Yes, there are complex systems in your body that will determine how you process calories and how much food you crave, but you the moderate-protein + moderate calorie equation stands up in almost any diet. And a lot of diets work. So kicking all sugar might help you, but it’s not the only way.

More importantly, sugar gets a bad rap in terms of other perceived health dangers. This is from typical bait-and-switch science.

It is true that if you suffer from disease – like cancer – your body can feed on sugar and make things worse. But, when you have cancer, your body does not function normally. It’s a disease and a nasty one, which is why campaigns like F*ck Cancer are so powerful because that battle is real.

Basing your diet on the diet of a cancer patient is a twisted approach to health. If you were to break a ceramic plate in your home, you might use a form of super glue to keep it together. The glue works once it’s broken. But if you were to cover the plate in glue prior to it breaking, it might not have any added benefit.

A lot of different foods – if consumed in large enough quantities – can make you more susceptible to breaking. But the poison is always in the dose.

If you look at actual toxicity levels, it takes about a lot of sugar to be lethal. For a 180/pound man, it would take about 6 pounds of sugar to kill him. (To do your own math, the median lethal dose is 30g/kg.) Comparatively, a man of the same size would only need about .6 pounds of salt to be lethal, as in 1/10th of the amount.

And once you start digging into all of the sources of sugar, it becomes instantly clear why labeling sugar as “toxic” is so dangerous and misleading.

Sugar Confusion, Explained

Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction. In the last 50 years, the average person has added nearly 500 calories per day to their diet. The general assumption is that sugar is to blame. And yet, sweeteners – such as sugar – only account for 10 percent of that increase, by far the lowest increase of any food. That’s a far cry from suggestions that the sugar epidemic is the reason worldwide levels of obesity are at record highs.

If you ask the experts, there’s no need to guess what’s driving the downward spiral. Research makes the answer clear.

Exercises scientist Brad Schoenfeld explains:

“When looking for explanations to the obesity epidemic, primary culprits are the proliferation of fast food options and a continual reduction in physical activity. Inexpensive, highly palatable, supersized fast-food has led to overconsumption and the technological revolution has progressively led to fewer calories expended.”

In fact, the battle with weight gain is occurring as sugar consumption has decreased significantly over the past decade. Neuroscientists and biochemist Stephen Guyenet dug into the data and found that sugar consumption has been on a downward spiral for a long period of time. Meaning that no matter what certain documentaries want to claim, the numbers don’t lie. If sugar really was the issue, we should be getting healthier because we are eating a lot less of it.

That’s not to say that sugar isn’t part of the problem, but it hints at just how much the sweet substance is misunderstood. In fact, the approach of “I must remove all sugar” might be part of your dietary struggles.

If you feel better by removing sugar, then, by all means, you should feel empowered to do so. But, if you believe that you must eliminate all sugars to be healthy, lose fat, and feel better, then you’ve been badly deceived. To truly understand sugar and how it can (or can’t) fit into your diet, a quick game of fact and fiction can help upgrade your diet and make dieting – and seeing results -- easier than ever.

The Sugar You Want

Any food can be dangerous in significant amounts. So if you eat sugar – and lots of it – all the time, then you’re asking for an increased likelihood of everything from obesity to diabetes.

But the question is about eating too much. It’s about taking a black and white approach to foods like sugar. Labeling sugar as bad and avoiding all sugar sources would be a big mistake because sugar is found in some of the healthiest foods in the world.

Sugar is far more than just the white stuff you spoon into your coffee. (That’s sucrose.)

In biochemistry, a sugar is either a monosaccharide or a disaccharide (“saccharides” being another name for “carbohydrates”).

  • A monosaccharide is a simple sugar.
  • A disaccharide is a sugar composed of two simple sugars.
  • An oligosaccharide is composed of two to ten simple sugars.
  • A polysaccharide is composed of two or more simple sugars (300 to 1,000 glucose molecules in starch).

In short, all carbohydrates –even good “healthy carbs” -- are composed of single sugars. And that also means things like fiber -- something most people know as good for your body-- is also a form of sugar.

Even crazier? Because of how your body works, even non-sugar foods – like protein – are converted into sugar in your body through a process called gluconeogenesis. This is done to prevent your blood sugar levels from dropping too low because your body runs on converting foods into usable sugars to power everything from exercise to daily activities like walking or thinking. If sugar were truly the root of all dietary evil, why would our main operating system convert non-sugar foods into sugar for use?

Glucose is needed as fuel for important functions, like your nervous system and your brain. (Yes, your brain doesn’t only function on glucose, but it does need glucose; and glucose also helps cells interact.)

Yes, you can live without ingesting sugars, or even carbs, but only because your body can synthesize the glucose its needs out of fatty acids and amino acids. This happens because your body needs sugar.

What would happen if you removed all sugar-containing foods? It means that you would no longer consume:

  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Berries
  • Grapefruit
  • Oranges
  • Pears
  • Avocado
  • Beets
  • Peppers
  • Carrots
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Eggplant
  • Sweet potatoes
  • White potatoes
  • Squash
  • Snap peas
  • Lentils
  • Beans
  • Nut butter

The list can go on and on. Yes, some of those foods have lower amounts of sugar. But, it’s a point that treating all sugar as equal is a big mistake.

The Sugar to Limit

A gram of sugar is just 4 calories. And 4 calories will not make you fat. If you were to grab a fun-size bag of M&Ms, you’d easily take down 10 grams of sugar. Or, in other words, you just ate 40 calories from sugar. Again, 40 calories in a day – even if you ate that every day – will not make you fat. That’s not an opinion; it’s a scientific fact.

But, here’s where a small bag of M&Ms per day could send more weight gain your way.

Unlike other foods (think protein), sugar isn’t fulfilling. In fact, it’s the opposite. Eating sugar oftentimes leaves you unsatisfied and craving more sugar. It’s how 1 small bag of M&Ms turns into the entire big bag that held all of the smaller bags. 

And that’s the real “danger” of sugar. It can be addictive, but not nearly as much as cocaine (no matter what some fear-tactics will suggest) or as the act of eating itself. Heck, years ago, scientists looked at the release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter that is released as a “reward” signal and makes you want more of something) for different acts.

Eating food, like a cheeseburger, causes an increase of dopamine of about 100 units. An orgasm, for comparison’s sake, led to an increase of about 200 units, which led certain scientists to joke that 2 cheeseburgers = 1 orgasm. We’ll stay out of that debate, but the point is clear: eating is inherently addictive.

And added sugars – whether it’s table sugar, cane sugar, or super organic agave – are all too easy to over-consume. What are especially treacherous are sugars in liquid form. You can drink and drink and drink mass quantities of them—enough calories to account for a five-course meal—and yet still feel hungry. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that soft drinks are linked to the current obesity epidemic. Sodas and colas are by far the main source of added sugar in the average American’s diet, accounting for 34.4% of the added sugar consumed by U.S. adults and children. In that respect, fruit juices aren’t any healthier, either.

Consuming too much sugar leads to type-II diabetes and obesity (though overeating will make you fat even if you aren’t consuming carbs), as well as increasing the likelihood of cardiovascular disease.

The lesson: if you’re going to eat sugar, the real danger is in finding the “off” button to make sure things don’t spiral out of control.

How Much Sugar Should You Eat?

If you’re looking for rough guidelines, here is how much added sugar you could add per day. Again, you can eat much less than this, and you might want to consider that if you know that self-control is an issue, which means a little bit of sugar will lead to a lot more.

According to the American Heart Association, here are your limits:

  • Women: 100 calories/day (about six teaspoons, or 25 g);
  • Men: 150 calories/day (about nine teaspoons, or 36 g)

What does that mean? In dessert talk, that’s 1 full-sized Snickers or about 7-8 Oreo cookies per day. But keep in mind: Added sugar winds up in a lot of unexpected places, like soup and pizza.

Our rule of thumb: in any diet – no matter which one you find most effective for yourself – you can feel confident that if 90% of your daily choices are “healthy” (proteins, vegetables, fruits, and so forth), then you have 10% of your calories to enjoy however you want without much concern.