Back in October I wrote about my thoughts on sugar. I outlined a complex and often hypocritical view point, which I still believe, but have been thinking about a lot today. Let me back up a bit. I've struggled for years with emotional eating and binging (read about my journey here). Once I finally excepted this reality I began working toward a more balanced life, so that most days I now feel "recovered". However, I still have moments where I abruptly swerve off the road. Today was one of those days. For any number of reasons which I have yet to unpack, I dove head first into chocolate chip cookies and ice cream this afternoon. I felt out of control and unable to connect my brain to my body.
I recognize progress because my brain reconnected much earlier than in years past; I am ending the day feeling only a little yucky, but the guilt and feelings of failure remain. On my way home my thoughts turned back to sugar in an attempt to explain what happened. In a world constantly bombarding us with "eat this, not that" messaging, how do we escape the guilt? Is it really so bad to eat an ice cream sundae on a Tuesday afternoon? I still don't have the answers, but I'm hoping my original thoughts guide me to a peaceful night's sleep.
Good? Bad? Evil? Neutral? Best thing ever?
More than any other food or ingredient, the debates surrounding sugar highlight my frustration with today's constantly changing nutritional advice. I started writing this post a few weeks ago after I read this New York Times article by Anahad O'Connor, which outlines the decades long attempt by the sugar industry to cover-up the known consequences of high amounts of added sugar in many processed foods.
O'Connor's work sent my brain into hyper-drive, attempting to establish my own values on such a controversial subject. It quickly occurred to me that trying to define sugar in black and white terms only exacerbates the food anxiety I am wanting to walk away from. So instead, this post highlights my many, sometimes incomplete, and half-baked ideas. Please hang in there with me, and may the odds be ever in your favor.
Before I begin this sugar rant, please understand I am fully aware that many of my thoughts contradict one another on some level. As people, our ideas, values, and understandings of the world around us invariably shift over time. This does not mean our feelings on a topic hold less value or importance, it simply means our brains are behaving normally.
Thought 1: Stop telling me what to eat
For those of you who have read other posts on this blog, I hope you begin to see a pattern in my philosophy on food and eating; eat what works for you, keeps you healthy and feeling great. I often suspect our society's obsession with searching for the "right" way to eat causes jumps on both ends of the disordered eating spectrum (underweight and overweight/obesity). Feeling trapped, not knowing what advice to follow, leads to just wanting to give up.
I don't know about you, but I automatically feel frustrated and defensive when I am told what not to do, especially when it comes to food. So even if someone is trying to give me solid, scientific advice, I tune out the moment they said "You should not...".
Thought 2: But maybe I should stop eating some foods...?
If you have not figured out already, I am a bit of a health nut, constantly trying to figure out what works best for me, so I do want to know what foods may be detrimental to my health. I am also a public health professional with a special interest in obesity prevention, so on a professional and academic level I understand that not all foods are created equal. I struggle to blend the professional side with the personal side; the side not wanting to be told what's good and what's bad.
So what if I decide to stop or start eating certain foods? How do I know if what I am reading can be trusted? The New York Times article illuminates a troubling intersection between science and politics, where powerful groups and individuals influence research outcomes. I do not want you to think I assume all research is corrupt; I don't. But, I do believe we need to bring our best critical thinking brains any time we read about or hear about the latest study purporting breaking new nutrition findings.
If you are interested in digging deeper into the science-politics-consumer triangle, watch this episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
Thought 3: So what's the deal with sugar?
Short answer: I have no idea.
Complex answer: Sugar is probably not the best thing to be eating, especially when unnecessarily added to things like granola bars, bread, chips, etc. Sugar slipped its way into the human diet thousands of years ago, so imagining a time when society lived without it makes my head spin. On a biological level, our bodies and brains crave foods with high sugar and fat contents because in hunter-gatherer days, our ancestors needed sugar and fat to survive. The problem lies in the fact that most of us no longer live in hunter-gatherer societies. We live in societies requiring less physical labor, fewer run-ins with tigers, yet daily interactions with french fries, cookies, soda, and fast food. How do we even begin to find balance?
Since graduate school, I have done my fair share of reading on the subject, and have come to the conclusion that added sugar leads to many negative health outcomes (I recommend watching Fed Up. I admit it's a strongly anti-sugar documentary, and very one-sided, but a well done film). However, I feel somewhat hypocritical when I juxtapose my two differing thoughts; too much added sugar probably isn't great vs. don't tell me what to eat. Maybe an answer doesn't exist.
The only conclusion I keep coming back to is it's complicated, which lacks any sort of usefulness. While I generally see nutritional advice as falling within a very gray area, there is enough compelling research to suggest added sugar sets our bodies up for all sorts of problems. Yet, expecting ourselves to cut out an entire food group, when we are constantly surrounded by it, may not be great advice either. The crazy cycle continues.
I want to find a solution, so in hopes of giving you a starting point, I offer this conclusion; something to simply consider, but by no means a "Should". Sugar is a real food (by this I mean it originates in nature), so deserves a place at the table, however, it has been creeping its way into every bite we take for centuries. Grocery store shelves are stocked with packaged foods masquerading as healthy options, when in reality they contain equivalent amounts of sugar to traditional sweets. My mom says if she could do it all over again, she would skip the granola bars in our lunch boxes, and stick to lower sugar cereals like Cheerios. I happen to agree with her. Our lives are filled with celebrations and social events providing ample opportunities to savor grandma's famous cookies, and being able to enjoy these times without guilt is important. So for all of the other moments; boring work lunches, rushed family dinners, and mid-night snacks, it may be a good idea to be more aware of how we are fueling our bodies.
I know this topic creates strong opinions, and I would love to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to leave a comment below or send me an email.
Walking enthusiast, kitchen experimenter, sports lover (watching, not playing), and future world traveler.
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