Here’s a question: is sugar always evil, or can it be okay for some people to eat?
It’s easy to get caught up in arguments that sugar serves no nutritional purpose and should be banned from the healthy diet, but let’s really take a look at whether sugar is truly without merit or if it might have some redeeming qualities.
First of all, sugar is everywhere. 100% of the carbohydrates we consume will be converted by our body into sugar before we absorb it. Why? Because our body is only capable of absorbing simple sugars. It simply cannot absorb anything more complicated!
Sugar is what our body runs off of, it’s the only fuel our brain uses (except in starvation), and its the only energy source we can unlock and use without oxygen. So in this sense, I will always disagree with the idea that sugar is inherently bad because there isn’t a human alive who isn’t running off sugar (to be specific, glucose) to some degree.
This is kind of splitting hairs, though. The sugar that people are usually referring to is the added sort, the crystalline or syrupy sweeteners we add to make food tasty. How about this sugar? Does it have a place in the diet?
The answer to this question is it depends. There are two main evils sugar inflicts upon people:
- It replaces calories that could be more nutrient-dense.
- It encourages overconsumption of calories.
The first evil is that sugar is, by nature, a form of “empty calorie”. Calories can never truly be empty because at the very least they will always supply energy in the form of… well… calories. We need calories to survive, so sugar does fulfill at least one need. If you were trapped on a desert island with nothing but a pile of sugar, you would certainly survive longer eating the sugar than trying to subsist on sand alone.
However, sugar is otherwise almost or completely devoid of nutritional value. Even the sugar sources that claim to be “rich sources of amino acids” or “contain essential vitamins and minerals” turn out to be nothing of the sort; no sugar source I am aware of provides even 1% of any essential nutrient per serving.
If sugar is offsetting other foods in your diet that provide nutrients, and you’re failing to meet your overall nutrient needs, then the sugar in your diet is doing you a disservice.
The second evil is that sugar can encourage you to eat too much. Sugar is energy-dense and easy to eat a lot of before your brain gets the signal to stop. When your diet is high in sugar, chances are its also calorically high and going to lead towards weight gain. Eventually that weight gain will start to cause metabolic problems, like insulin resistance, and then health problems follow. If sugar is contributing a large number of calories to your daily diet, then sugar is again doing you a disservice.
Neither of the above two reasons is a necessary consequence of sugar, though. It is perfectly possible to eat limited amounts of sugar, even on a daily basis, without either eating too many calories or getting too few nutrients. When this is true, then it’s hard to make an argument that sugar is evil at all. Sure, it will never be a direct contributor towards great health, but if you meet and exceed your nutritional needs, then the influence of that sugar in your diet is going to be small.
Athletes and Sugar
Athletes are a special exception, because for athletes, sugar can directly affect performance. Out of all the sources of energy our body might use, only sugar has the capability of being burned without oxygen. If you’ve ever been out of breath exercising, you’ve switched over to using sugar as your energy source (at least to some extent–you will continue to burn fat too). If you’re looking to increase your performance when you’re low on oxygen, then the only fuel we can give our body to help with that is sugar.
The performance of any athlete competing in an event that is marathon-length or shorter can directly increase their performance by ensuring they have ample supply of sugar during the event. You could probably make an argument that even ultra-endurance athletes would benefit, but in their case the difficulty would be carrying enough food to supply that energy.
All carbohydrates end up as sugars eventually, but when those carbohydrates are in a complex form (like the starch in a whole grain or a sweet potato) then our body needs to break the sugar molecules off first. This process takes time and diverts energy, so its better for an athlete to just get their sugar in the simplest form possible. Energy drinks are indeed that for a performing athlete: energy. Eating a piece of fruit seems more wholesome, and it may be more wholesome, but it’s not going to affect performance to the same extent.
So when it comes to performance, sugar fulfills an immediate need. In fact, sugar is the only thing that fulfills that need. The sugar they consume during exercise is literally being burned as they exercise. Afterall, the only way sugar can affect their performance is by increasing their ability to turn energy into movement! If there is any sugar left over, it doesn’t appear to affect their health negatively, as athletes tend to have the best (as in lowest) risk profiles for cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and other diseases of lifestyle in general.
Focus on Positive Nutrition First
The first most important thing is to focus on the positive parts of your nutrition. Make sure you’re getting plenty of nutrient-dense, healthy foods. Veggies, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fungi, lean meats, etc. should form the basis of your diet.
If you’re getting plenty of these foods everyday, then take a look at how much energy-dense food you’re eating. What are you eating that isn’t contributing to your overall health?
If your diet is great and you don’t eat many less-optimal choices, then sugar isn’t going to be an evil spreading pestilence into your body. Sugar will just be a neutral, not terribly important part of your diet.
It’s only through offsetting good foods and encouraging excess consumption that sugar causes ill. If you’re eating right and eating the right amount, then sugar is harmless.