A lady from my yoga class drove a stake through my nutritionist heart!
Yes, that’s how I felt when this smart, health-conscious woman told me that she had just finished a month-long challenge to limit sugar in her diet. She was glad that the challenge was over, so she could start drinking milk and eating all fruits again. No milk? Limited fruits? My sensible nutritionist heart was broken!
There are a lot of people saying that sugar is toxic or that sugar is poison. But is it?
It’s true that both milk and fruit have sugar – naturally-occurring sugar – but these are nutrient-dense foods. We want more health-boosting, nutrient-dense foods in the diet, not less. And there is no reason to think that foods with naturally-occurring sugars are of lesser health value. Fruits, in particular, are under-consumed. And they are loaded with disease-fighting phytonutrients (think lycopene, flavonoids, resveratrol and on and on), which help shield the body from heart disease, some cancers, stroke and even type 2 diabetes!
Sugar is poison?
Not so fast. Even added sugars have a place in a wholesome diet. I agree that Americans eat too much added sugars, but that doesn’t mean that we need to eliminate all added sugars. I ask my clients to look at the value of the food. Take sugary drinks, for example. Or brownies. There’s little health value in these foods. These are the foods to limit or remove from your diet. But what about nutritious foods with added sugars?
For all their mouth-puckering tartness, I’d never be able to eat cranberries without some added sweetness. Yogurt too is often too tart. If it takes adding some sugar to enjoy the flavors and health benefits of yogurt and cranberries, I’m all for it – as long as good sense is applied. I wouldn’t say that sugar is toxic if a small amount helps me consume disease-fighting foods.
Food label claims missing the point
Somehow in recent decades, Americans have come to define healthful foods by what’s missing rather than what is present. This warped view is dangerous. Instead of looking for labels claiming no sugar, gluten-free (unless you are gluten-intolerent, of course) and similar free-from claims, we need to evaluate the healthfulness of a food based on what it offers – like lots of nutrients and phytonutrients.
The dose makes the poison
Even water is poisonous when it’s overconsumed. At a recent sponsored conference, Michael Holsapple, a toxicologist at Michigan State University, gave the audience of registered dietitian nutritionists a fun (yes, it was entertaining) lesson on hazards and risks. It boils down to this: Without the necessary exposure, even something hazardous poses little risk. Dr. Holsapple gave the clever example of a shark behind glass at an aquarium and a shark swimming in open water with surfers and children nearby. It was easy to see that a shark is a hazard with it’s sharp teeth and powerful jaws. But is there really a risk if I’m standing on the dry side of the shark tank at an aquarium? Nope. And that’s how it is with sugar (and pesticide residues too, as Dr. Holsapple explained). Just because some is present, doesn’t mean that I’m at risk.
The dose of sugar makes the poison. That’s why I shun sugary drinks and baked goods on a regular basis. They have a lot of added sugars and calories and little health value. But that’s also why I regularly sprinkle sugar on my cottage cheese with cinnamon and raisins, why I don’t fear desserts now and then, why I buy dried cranberries and tart cherries with added sugars and why I drink milk with it’s 12 grams of natural sugar (lactose) per cup and eat an abundance of fruits. These sugars bring me more health-boosting foods and nutrients.
What is good nutrition?
The main point I hope to make with this post is that good nutrition is about eating wholesome foods much more than it is about fearing whatever is made out to be public enemy number one. It’s about eating and enjoying foods that treat the body well and nourish our cells and organs. It’s not about fearing foods and ingredients.
So is it true that sugar is toxic? In the background of a wholesome diet, even added sugars in reasonable amounts are not toxic. It’s the dose that makes the poison. I’d much rather you put your energy into preparing health-boosting foods than fearing individual ingredients.
What do you think? Is sugar toxic?
What else would you like to know about sugar or other foods on the taboo list? I’ll take your questions for a future post.
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