Some of the best and most common diet advice out there is as simple as this: cut sugar.
However, a blind quest to cut all sugar will be practically impossible and it might not actually be that great for you. It’s nice to have a two-word action plan, but let’s put a little English on this one.
Wait, Why Is Sugar Bad?
Sugar is so bad because it is literally nothing but carbs.
“Carb” is short for “carbohydrate” – a chemical compound consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. These chains are broken down into carbon dioxide and water while the excess energy is released. That is – when the chains are broken down. The alternative is to store the energy as fat.
Sugar is a carb but not all carbs are sugar and not all carbs are created equal. Sugar is a simple carb, meaning that it breaks down very quickly or gets stored very quickly. That’s opposed to complex carbs that break down slowly to provide lasting energy.
So, more sugar in the diet can mean more fat in and on your body. But, that’s not all. After all, literally every cell in your body contains some fat. It’s where that fat is stored and how that sugar is processed that can become the problem if the sugar in your diet comes from the wrong places.
Chemicals created by your pancreas process the sugar in your blood. Too much of the wrong kind of sugar, and your body can start ignoring these chemicals, or your pancreas can burn out and stop producing them – both lead to diabetes.
Further, sugar processing happens in the liver. Not only does a lot of sugar processing tax the liver, it can lead the liver to store excess fat on the liver itself, leading to the death of healthy liver cells.
So, Sugar Is Bad because … Energy Is Bad?
It’s true – you do need energy. But you need other nutrients too. So, ideally, you get energy and nutrients from the same places. The bad news is that it’s easier to get sugar alone than it is to get nutrients alone.
In nutrition, the ratio of nutrients to energy is looked at in terms of density. You want foods that are “heavy” on nutrients and “light” on energy – “nutrient-dense.” That is, opposed to being “light” on nutrients and “heavy” on energy – “energy-dense.” So, the way to cut sugar in the most effective way is to avoid energy-dense foods.
Cut Sugar, Not Food
Most of the most energy-dense foods are artificial, or at least heavily processed. Depending on the definition that you go with, “processed foods” can be anything that is cut or cooked. Diets like the Paleo diet get at this in a major way by throwing out even minimally processed foods like oils and grains. (Interestingly enough, even this diet allows fruit, which we’ll get to soon.)
However, as we ask how to cut sugar, we will limit our prohibition to “ultra-processed” foods. But, what does that mean?
Food writer Michael Pollan gets at this with his mantra “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” For Pollan, “food” means “anything that your grandmother would recognize as food.” Sure, that might include cigarettes, but it doesn’t include a lot of high-carb-no-nutrient garbage that too many of us are eating too much of these days.
This approach that you can use to cut sugar cuts out things like sodas, candys, junk food, fast food, and pre-made foods that you can catch by trawling the inside aisles of the grocery store.
Sugars can hide in some pretty sneaky places, so it does help to do things like read nutrition labels if you aren’t sure – granola bars and sports drinks are prime examples. A good rule of thumb is to avoid eating something if any form of sugar (most things that end in “-ose”) is one of the first three ingredients.
However, for the most part, you probably already know which foods excess sugar likes to hang out in – even though you might need to put some effort into consciously avoiding these foods. Think about things like sweet baked goods and junkfoods. Your road to cut sugar might be as simple as cutting those foods.
But, what about natural foods that are also high in sugar?
How Different Diets Cut Sugar
Most diets agree that it is important to cut sugar, though they disagree on how and where to cut it. For example, diets have a pretty strong and unanimous stance on things like bread and pasta but not foods like fruit.
We’ve already touched on Paleo, but it’s not the only diet out there with a stance on fruit. The Atkins Diet starts out more strict but gradually opens doors to more variety, which (eventually) includes fruit. Other dietary approaches, like intermittent fasting, work on different principles and don’t necessarily restrict any food group or nutrient.
While carb-restrictive diets can lead to rapid short-term weight loss, making them ideal for some cases, they aren’t for everyone and they aren’t always great for living by them long-term, and that’s not just because of their position on fruit.
We’ve already touched down on the fact that carbs also tend to go hand-in-hand with other beneficial nutrients like fiber and it can be too easy to cut fiber when you cut sugar – particularly if you also cut other carb sources like grains.
Making Your Own Rules on Sugar
Fruit is high in sugars, and if that’s the only criteria that makes a fruit “bad” then fruits are bad. However, we’ve been advocating a bit more nuance in your dietary views. You don’t want to cut sugar by cutting fruit.
Fruits are relatively high in sugars, but they are also high in other nutrients. This includes vitamins and minerals that can be difficult to find if you throw the fruit out with the bathwater. Sure, you can get those nutrients without the sugars through various supplements, but nutritionists tend to agree that your body gets the most from nutrients found in real food.
If you want to be wary of fruits without ruling them out altogether, the most nutrient-dense fruits are also physically dense. That usually means having more fiber and less water. Think bananas and apples over things like oranges and grapes.
This also seems like a good place to pick at a common myth, that “natural” sugar is somehow better for you. The sugar in fruit isn’t better for you than the sugar in fruitsnacks. Fruit is better for you than fruitsnacks because of the other nutrients that fruit brings along.
Is there a “When” for Cutting Sugar?
We’ve covered Why, Where, and How to cut sugar, but is there a “when”?
If you’ve heard of concepts like “carboloading” you know that some people will deliberately go hard on energy-dense foods before a workout. For some people, this includes foods that are a lot worse for you than fruit. Some workout foods and drinks will even include more sugar than they need using this excuse.
It’s true that you need energy to get a good workout. However, you should maintain this energy by having a balanced diet all the time. That includes allowing yourself simple and complex carbs instead of going no-or-low-carb most of the day and then eating sugar before you lift. So, try to cut sugar by cutting the workout-fuel excuse.
There might also be a time when these foods can be good for you. If you look forward to your workout snacks as much as you look forward to your workout, easing the dietary restrictions a little bit can be a good reward. This is similar to some of the arguments that we put forward in our skip-day article.
That article also discussed the idea that going low-or-no-carb for a while can eventually lead to plateaus and the occasional diet skip day may help to prevent this. Again, this is another consideration that you don’t need to make if you maintain a well-rounded general diet instead of following an overly restrictive diet plan.
How Much Sugar Is too Much?
Most guidelines from federal and official resources don’t recommend limiting “sugar” – they recommend limiting “added sugar.” That is, the kind that is added to processed foods and soft drinks but not the kind that is found in things like fruit. For example, the CDC recommends that you get no more than 10 percent of your daily calories from added sugars.
If you’re counting calories anyway, you can use that as an opportunity to set your “allowance” of added sugars in case there is some kind of sweet that you can’t live without. If you don’t meticulously count your calories, hopefully this article has convinced you to at least think twice about how much sugar you eat, where it comes from, and where to cut sugar out.
Cutting Sugar Isn’t Everything
There aren’t any practical and sustainable rules on how to completely cut sugar – or even completely cut added sugar – from your diet. Just make sure that you aren’t going to added sugars for fuel when healthier sources would do, and remember not to avoid healthy nutrient sources just because some sugar comes along for the ride.