Q. I work with girls with eating disorders and the topic of sugar keeps coming up. There is a lot of info in the media targeting sugar, and diets that encourage you to “quit” sugar completely. I’d really like to be able to give the girls I work with an evidence-based explanation for why cutting out sugar completely isn’t a good idea. So far I mostly take the line that food is not simply about nutrition. If you avoid sugar at all costs then you are going to miss out on life (you can’t share a cupcake at a friends birthday, you’re too worried about ingredients to enjoy your food etc.). But I’d love your perspective on whether low to moderate amounts of sugar is OK.
A. Our bodies can turn proteins, starches, and fats into glucose for our cells so strictly speaking there would be no need to take in any dietary sugars. Of course, almost 100% of the calories in vegetables are from sugars and we wouldn’t want to eliminate them because they include so many essential nutrients!
I think what you (and they) are really talking about is added or concentrated sweeteners, like white sugar, honey, molasses, etc. Unlike vegetables, these sources of sugar don’t add much nutritionally to the diet–and consuming these sweeteners in excessive quantities is clearly harmful. But it’s not necessary to eliminate them completely.
The Poison is in the Dose
Little to Be Gained from a Zero-Tolerance Policy
My other concern about going sugar-free is that it often involves consuming lots of artificial sweeteners–which don’t provide the “free pass” that many think they do. See also: Artificial Sweeteners and Weight Gain.
Is Sugar Ever Good for You?
The only scenario that I can think of where concentrated sugar might have an actual nutritional function is for endurance athletes. If you’re exercising hard for more than 60 minutes at a time, consuming simple sugars is the most efficient way to provide fuel for depleted muscles.