is sugar bad for you

When it comes to nutrition, everyone has an opinion. Everyone is an apparent expert and will throw around phrases and recommendations without hesitation.


In one of the colleges I teach at I think the most common question I get asked is “Should I cut out sugar?” My answer is usually something witty like “if you want to be unhappy then go ahead!”


When I explain that sugar itself will not cause weight gain, and that you can enjoy whatever you want in moderation I am usually confronted by a high-fat loving, protein-shake-before-bed preacher who goes on to tell me how the insulin fairy will kill me. Well let’s look a bit deeper into this.


First off let’s tackle the “sugar is addictive” commentary. There are some studies noted that conclude sugar is more addictive than cocaine. This is absolute nonsense! The study was in rats, which has its own limitations, but the main issue was the way in which they designed the study. You see behaviour is one of the main contributors of addiction. The scientists made sugar part of the rats’ daily routine, and then offered drugs as a replacement.


The rat preferred sugar.. but why?


He had developed eating sugar as a behaviour. This was not an addiction. A follow up study by Johannes Hebebrand, et al. (2014) also confirmed this as a behaviour disorder. Professor Suzanne Dickson, a neuroscientist of the University of Gothenburg also stated “There has been a major debate over whether sugar is addictive. There is currently very little evidence to support the idea that any ingredient, food item, additive or combination of ingredients has addictive properties.”


But sugar can cause obesity right? Yes of course it can. But so could sweet potato, protein pancakes and chicken if you were to eat it in the right amounts. Again, we come back to energy balance. As long you are in a caloric deficit you will lose weight – fact.


Most observational studies are usually using obese participants who over eat sugar, do not exercise and are sedentary in everyday life. So is it the sugar that’s making them fat, or the fact they don’t exercise, binge eat and sit down most of the day?


Still not convinced?


Let me go to the other extreme. If I were to only allow you to eat 1 teaspoon of sugar a day and nothing else at all would you put on weight? Absolutely not! So is it sugar that making you put on weight or your overall calorie consumption then?


The last argument I will quickly debunk is that sugar spikes insulin. Yes insulin is released once we have eaten something high in carbohydrates but that’s because we now have glucose in our blood and it needs to be carried somewhere. Insulin is a carrier hormone and moves glucose into cells. This can be energy cells, muscle cells or fat cells. People get hooked on fat cells and immediately throw the baby out with the bath water. We need insulin to survive. Type 1 diabetics have to inject insulin because their pancreas does not produce it anymore. If they don’t inject it guess what could happen? Death. No joke.


If I was sitting down now eating haribo (this is quite an often occurrence to be honest!) and not doing much exercise then I will probably store a lot of the glucose (all carbs get broken down into glucose) as fat. But guess what happens if I am in a calorie deficit at the end of the day? The fat that was stored (and more) is then released and oxidised which results in weight loss. The last point on this is that the person who goes around killing the insulin fairy is usually someone in the high fat/high protein crowd. At that point I usually go on to show them that the other main macronutrient that spikes insulin is protein.


The issue with trying to be logical with people about food is that they want a silver bullet. Something that gives them an excuse or a quick win. Team LDNM preaching “balance” is not sexy but guess what? You will lead a happier, less stressful and tastier life if you just take a scientific and logical approach.


Read more about flexible dieting vs clean eating vs IIFYM.


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  1. Johannes Hebebrand, Özgür Albayrak, Roger Adan, Jochen Antel, Carlos Dieguez, Johannes de Jong, Gareth Leng, John Menzies, Julian G. Mercer, Michelle Murphy, Geoffrey van der Plasse, Suzanne L. Dickson. “Eating addiction”, rather than “food addiction”, better captures addictive-like eating behavior. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 2014; DOI: 1016/j.neubiorev.2014.08.0
  2. WHO (2016) World health organization. Available at: 22 November 2016)
  3. Avena, N.M., Rada, P. and Hoebel, B.G. (2007) ‘Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake’, 32(1).