Having spent more than a decade in the fitness industry, I’ve seen every macronutrient demonized at various points. And the object of this demonization changes every few years.
In the 1970s and ’80s it was fat, with protein caught in that undertow as well. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, carbohydrates were demonized, a trend that’s coming back around. Protein has gotten some new undeserved hatred again recently. And then there’s the on-again, off-again battle that consumes other ingredients, such as dairy and gluten.
Of course, everything that’s out of favor at one point is revered as The Answer at another. Fat, protein, carbs, dairy—they’ve all been linked to health benefits and improved body composition. And you can easily find diets that uses those links to amp them up bizarrely, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
But sugar…that’s an easy one. Everyone these days seems to agree that sugar is bad with a capital B. It is the singular cause of the global obesity epidemic, and the first item you should cut from your diet…right?
Turns out it’s not nearly as simple as you probably think. Open your mind, and get ready for the sweet—and not so sweet—truths of the world’s most popular sweetener.
WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT SUGAR?
Let’s start with the big guns. Research has associated high sugar intake with increased rates of obesity, heart disease, and cancer.1-3 Many fitness and research professionals suggest reducing or eliminating sugar intake to optimize health and body composition.
This seems logical at first. But the next question is the big one: Is it the sugar that does the damage, or the extra calories it brings? Because those calories can definitely be significant. A typical can of soda contains around 40-50 grams of sugar, and drinking two cans per day could increase your daily calories by a whopping 300-400.
What’s worst about these calories is that they’re basically empty. By this I mean that sugar has been shown to have very little effect on satiety, or how full you feel from the calories you eat. Taking in lots of extra calories but not getting full? You’d better believe that’s a recipe for weight gain.
But beyond the satiety argument, many people also believe that sugar in and of itself is more lipogenic (causes an increase in fatty-acid production and ultimately fat storage) than comparable calories from other types of carbohydrates. By this logic, some people recommend avoiding sugar by any means necessary.
Further, in the last few years, popular documentaries claim that sugar is toxic and can contribute to health ailments. This one bugs me, because anything can be a toxin—it’s the dosage that makes it poison. It would take a dose of 450 grams of sucrose to kill the average person. By comparison, a lethal dose of vitamin C is around one-third that dose, and a lethal dose of alcohol about one-fourth. So could sugar be toxic? In theory, yes—but you’d have to try pretty hard.
ON THE OTHER HAND…
Sure, correlation data supports the sugar-obesity relationship, but does the research data actually support the notion that sugar is more lipogenic than other forms of carbohydrate or calories? This is where things get murky.
A 2001 study published in International Journal of Obesity followed overweight subjects whose diets derived either 10 or 5 percent of calories from sucrose.4 On a 2,000-calorie diet, this would be the difference between 50 and 25 grams of sugar per day. After eight weeks, there were no significant differences in weight loss or BMI. In fact, the high-sugar group lost about 1-1/2 pounds more, but this effect was statistically insignificant.