Nutrition Myths, Busted: think sugar is addicting? Is the sugar in fruit bad your you? Does sugar cause diabetes? Read on to learn what the science has to say!
Sugar. We know too much of it is bad for our health. Too much sugar can cause weight gain (1), increase cardiovascular disease risk (2), and displaces nutrient-rich foods in the diet. Sugar is readily available in our food system in the form of snack foods, beverages, packaged desserts, yogurt, ketchup, candy…the list goes on!
The USA recommends Americans consume no more than 12 teaspoons of added sugar per day, or less than 10% of daily calorie needs (3). But, the average American consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar per day (4)!
We can all agree that we should limit our sugar intake for good health. But, there are some nutrition myths regarding sugar floating around. Learn what the recent research says about sugar!
Myth #1: All sugar is bad for you, even the sugar in fruit.
First, let’s clarify something. All sugar, regardless of what kind, is ultimately broken down into simple sugars. A majority of the sugar we digest is broken down into glucose, and some of it is converted to fructose. So, no matter if you eat a cinnamon bun, an apple, or a literal spoonful of sugar, it all gets broken down into the same thing. Ultimately, your body will use or store the glucose from fruit and a pastry the same way.
That being said, the sugar you consume with fruit comes with a lot of other beneficial nutrients! First, fruit is full of vitamins and minerals our bodies need, such as vitamins A, C, folate, and potassium. Also, fruit is a good source of fiber. The fiber in fruit fills us up, but it also slows down digestion. Therefore, the sugar within fruit is broken down and released into the bloodstream more slowly, preventing a rapid spike in blood sugar.
Fruit can absolutely be part of a healthy diet. The current dietary guidelines recommend about 2 cups of fresh fruit per day. Make sure to keep the skin on, because that is where the fiber lives! Choose fruit over processed foods, like cookies and sugary cereals, to avoid consuming too much added sugar.
Enjoy 2-3 servings of fruit per day to get important vitamins, minerals, and fiber in your diet. Regardless of where it comes from, all sugar is broken down by the body into simple sugars to be used for energy or stored as glycogen or fat. Excess added sugar is where we get in trouble, because it displaces more nutrient-rich foods in the diet.
Myth #2: Sugar is just as addicting as drugs.
Many of us have seen headlines comparing sugar to cocaine, heroine, and other highly addictive drugs. But is sugar addicting, just like these commonly abused drugs?
The idea that sugar is addicting is based on the premise of how the brain responds to sugar. When we eat sugar, the pleasure center in the brain lights up. Dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, levels surge. What else also activates the reward center and triggers dopamine release? Highly addictive drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and opiates (5).
But, sugar is different from these drugs. First, our bodies naturally will crave and enjoy sugar, because sugar = energy for our cells and brain. We are rewarded with feeling good when we eat sugar, because we need some to function!
A recent review of the literature about sugar addiction showed key differences between drug addiction and sugar (6). Rats given sugar or cocaine would seek cocaine despite negative consequences, which was not observed with sugar. Also, when presented with environmental stimuli associated with sugar or cocaine, rats who previously had cocaine displayed patterns of habitual drug seeking. This review concluded that there is little evidence to support sugar as an addictive substance.
While sugar activates the same reward center in our brains as drugs, there is little evidence to show it is an addictive substance. Our bodies need sugar in the form of glucose for energy, so eating sugar makes us feel good.
Myth #3: Eating too much sugar causes Type 2 Diabetes.
Glucose and insulin have a close relationship. Insulin is a blood sugar regulating hormone. When we eat sugar, our bodies break it down into glucose, and it travels to the blood. This triggers the pancreas to release insulin, which allows glucose to enter our cells. This process lowers our blood sugar levels to normal after we eat.
Type 2 Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects the body’s ability to metabolize and regulate blood sugar levels. A person with type 2 diabetes will either not respond properly to insulin, or not produce enough insulin. So, they struggle with maintaining a safe and stable blood sugar level. A normal fasting blood sugar level is <100 mg/dL, but someone with diabetes may have a much higher level, because they aren’t able to move the sugar from their blood to their cells.
A common misconception about type 2 diabetes is that eating sugar causes it. When you think about it, this idea kind of makes sense. You have too much sugar in your blood, so you must be eating too much sugar. That’s why it is so important to have a grasp on sugar digestion, absorption, and insulin regulation.
What really causes type 2 diabetes?
Some risk factors include: overweight/obesity, genetics, age, race, physical inactivity, or other conditions like PCOS or gestational diabetes (7). Poor diet also may elevate risk of Type 2 Diabetes, which includes an excess of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. But whether or not you develop a disease is complicated and individualized, so no one risk factor determines your destiny.
There are several risk factors for developing Type 2 Diabetes, but specifically eating too much sugar is not one of them. To reduce your risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes, manage your weight in a healthy way, exercise, and eat a balanced diet that limits saturated fats and added sugar.
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