Sugar is Toxic. True or False?

Is Sugar Toxic

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Is Sugar Toxic?

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!

Don’t break my heart! Instead learn all you need to know about sugar. Download my FREE guide Be Sugar Savvy: 10 Smart Strategies for Sensible People.

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.

Can added sugars actually be good for you? Or is sugar toxic all the time?Click To Tweet

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?

There’s lots more to learn about sugar! Download my FREE guide Be Sugar Savvy: 10 Smart Strategies for Sensible People.

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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Jill-Weisenberger_about-image-2
Jill Weisenberger

I'm Jill, and I believe simple changes in your mindset and health habits can bring life-changing rewards. And I don't believe in willpower. It's waaaay overrated. As a food-loving registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes care and education specialist and certified health and wellness coach, I've helped thousands of people solve their food and nutrition problems. If you're looking for a better way to master this whole healthy eating/healthy living thing or if you're trying to prevent or manage diabetes or heart problems, you'll find plenty of resources right here.

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19 Comments

  1. Charlie on June 15, 2017 at 10:16 pm

    Very sensible and educated view on added and natural sugars!

    • Jill Weisenberger on June 16, 2017 at 2:02 pm

      Thanks Charlie!

  2. Jenna on June 16, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    Great post, Jill! All this hype with sugar drives me nuts- especially fearing natural sugars in fruit and dairy!

    • Jill Weisenberger on June 16, 2017 at 2:03 pm

      I hear ya Jenna! Those of us with accurate and empowering messages need to be louder than fear-mongerers.

  3. Dave Grotto on June 16, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    As always, sensible sage advice from one of my fave dietitians!

    • Jill Weisenberger on June 16, 2017 at 3:46 pm

      Thanks Dave! We both strive to be sensible 🙂

  4. Caryn Haywood on June 18, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    Yes! I find myself coming in the defense of the poor white potato all the time! I beg my patients not to equate the nutritional value of a plain baked potato with a fried potato! Or just assume that a sweet potato is so superior to a white potato.

    • Jill Weisenberger on June 18, 2017 at 4:58 pm

      Yes! Potatoes are nutrient dense – a very inexpensive source of potassium, which is underconsumed. It’s good to continue to share facts when so much nutrition info is simply based on misinformation or fear.

  5. Romy Nathan, on June 20, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    Well done!!!

    • Jill Weisenberger on June 20, 2017 at 8:01 pm

      Thanks Romy!

  6. Carol Taylor on June 21, 2017 at 7:04 pm

    Finally, a sensible response to the sugar= toxic craze! I always say “the dose makes the poison!” Glad you do as well 🙂

    • Jill Weisenberger on June 21, 2017 at 8:05 pm

      Thank you! Also, all things are poison, and nothing is without poison, which I think is the original quotation.

  7. Brian on June 22, 2017 at 7:33 am

    Great article!

    • Jill Weisenberger on July 1, 2017 at 7:06 pm

      Thank you Brian!

  8. Judes on June 23, 2017 at 9:23 am

    Great article Jill! I’m so tired of this no fruit, no dairy kick. It’s killing my nutritionist heart too

    • Jill Weisenberger on June 23, 2017 at 9:28 am

      Thanks for joining the club Judes!

  9. bob on July 4, 2019 at 10:37 pm

    I really get concerned with this nutritional mis-information out there about demonizing macro nutrients one year then another the next. First it’s fats, they’re evil you shouldn’t eat them, now it’s carbs, they’re bad, now sugar is toxic? Let me ask a question for those pro sugar toxic camp people out there. Have a diet completely devoid of sugar and what happens to your body? The truth is you will die. Similarly with a diet completely devoid of fat, again you die, or completely devoid of salt? you die. The truth is in understanding that these macro nutrients are VITAL to day to day cellular function, to simply slap a label saying they are poison and bad is really misunderstanding their role in bodily functions. you need a certain necessary amount to balance your metabolism.

  10. Tyler Johnson on November 12, 2019 at 12:46 pm

    That makes sense that it would be important to keep your sugar intake in moderation. I feel like eating some candy every once in a while would be just fine, but eating it all the time could be bad for your health. I should set a limit on how much candy and sugar that I can eat to see if it could improve my health while still enjoying some chocolate or something.

    • Jill Weisenberger on November 12, 2019 at 4:00 pm

      Absolutely! I enjoy chocolate – albeit just a little – nearly every day!

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Jill Weisenberger

I believe simple changes in health habits can bring you life-changing rewards.

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