Written by Lindzie O’Reilly, on-campus registered dietitian at the University of Guelph
Multiple times per week (sometimes multiple times per day) I am bombarded with messages about the dangers of sugar for our health and the benefits of removing it. What far fewer people are talking about are the dangers that come along with eliminating sugar completely.
It’s true – eating too much sugar day after day after day can have negative consequences for physical and mental well-being. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should cut it out completely. While avoiding sugar as a rule or aiming to quit “cold turkey” can seem appealing, it’s important to know the consequences of that approach before diving in. The true sweet spot is somewhere in middle, and the path that we take to get there is the most important.
We are evolutionarily programmed to crave sugar. In times of scarcity, sugar was a necessary source of energy for our ancestors. Craving sugar does not necessarily mean you have an addiction, it means that you are human. The most reliable way to induce a craving is to create a situation of scarcity – tell yourself you are never ever going to eat chocolate again and I guarantee you will crave it (and also feel worse about eating it, but we’ll talk about that in a minute). A great way to debunk the idea of ‘’sugar addiction” is to challenge yourself to eat nothing but sugar. Seriously, try it. Nothing but sugar for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. I promise, it will get old pretty quickly.
Aiming to eliminate sugar completely is a recipe for the “what the heck” response. We’ve all been there. “I told myself I wasn’t going to have dessert with dinner, but I did any way. I’ve really messed up. I might as well have a second dessert, and while I’m at it, a third. I’ll start fresh tomorrow.” When we aim to avoid something completely, not only does it make it really likely that we will eat it, it makes us feel terrible about ourselves when we do eat it. Once the negative self-talk begins, it’s nearly impossible to make rational decisions that prioritize what is truly best for our well-being. Instead, it drastically increases our portion sizes and also the likelihood that we will engage in secretive behavior (sneaking back down to the kitchen for another slice of cake when no one is looking or stopping for another snack on the drive home).
Eliminating sugar completely in the name of health represents a very narrow focus of health. Eating foods that provide enough fuel and nutrients to support energy and health is certainly important. It’s also incredibly important to eat foods that we like the taste of, and to give ourselves permission to truly enjoy those foods. It’s important to surround ourselves with loved ones and share food, laughter and memories together. Imposing rules and restrictions on food makes it challenging to honour all of the different reasons why we eat and adds a layer of stress to situations that is not helpful in pursuing well-being.
So, If the path to well-being is somewhere in between eating cookies for every meal of every day and never eating cookies at all, how the heck do we get there?? That path involves gradual change and self-compassion. Most of us are great at highlighting the things we’re not happy about and identifying the things we think we should stop doing. Instead, there is a lot of value in taking time to reflect on our strengths and the things we are doing well and could do a little more often.
Instead of focusing on specific foods to avoid, it can be helpful to focus on the bigger picture. Can you take a break every few hours throughout the day to have something to eat? One of the biggest contributors to food cravings is a situation of scarcity. Intentionally or unintentionally, many people eat too little during the day resulting in a food debt that leaves them feeling exhausted, irritable, and out of control around food.
Food rules and black and white thinking have become so common in our society that we often forget there can be a middle ground. Diet talk highjacks our social media and our social gatherings. We collect food rules like badges of honour and try to bully ourselves into behavior change. Unless you have a medical reason to avoid a food completely, cutting it out of your life will inevitable do more harm than good. What would it look like if you experimented with kindness and self-compassion instead?