'Sugar is not the villain' — and other nutrition myths debunked

'Sugar is not the villain' — and other nutrition myths debunked

Guess what? You don't need to eliminate sugar from your diet or eat clean all the time to achieve your fitness goals!
Updated 24 Nov, 2020

If your fitness trainer tells you to stay away from your favourite foods, then you need to find yourself a new one.

Nutrition is one of the most butchered aspects of health and fitness primarily due to misinformation being distributed by movement coaches with little to outdated knowledge on the topic.

One way to keep yourself informed is to question and research the information that is passed on to you, for your own sake and for the sake of others if you too decide to pass it on. This should come as a no-brainer because science is ever-evolving and studies become dated due to which they are often proven inaccurate and/or flawed.

This is precisely why I got in touch with Sameet Alam Khan, a PN1 Nutrition Coach, and Nazish Chagla, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, to shed light on the most common nutrition myths they've heard.

Myth: Sugar is addictive/bad for you

Sameet: Sugar is not addictive, if it were, we would see people eating sugar straight out of the jar.

When people say you shouldn't eat foods high in sugar, they're ill-informed because sugary foods like donuts, milkshakes, chocolates are high in sugar but they are also high in fat and salt. This combination makes them hyperpalatable, i.e. tasty.

Hyperpalatable foods are engineered to cause us to crave them; they impact our brain and taste buds — that's why we tend to lose control around these foods and overconsume them. It is the overconsumption of calories [from these foods] which causes weight gain and certain health markers, etc — it's not due to sugar alone.

However, sugar does not have any necessary nutrients and most of our diet should not include it. Having said that, as long as most of our diet is filled with protein sources, whole foods, sufficient fibre, minerals as well as vitamins, then consuming some sugar allows us to enjoy foods and be flexible with our diet.

Sugar itself is not harmful but in the long run it can lead to overconsumption and that can have negative side effects.

Myth: You have to eat clean all the time to be healthy

Nazish: Eating a variety of nutritionally dense foods is key as they keep you satiated and you can indulge in everything else once in a while as long as you can find your body's own unique balance.

Myth: Food is either good or bad and the latter should be avoided

Sameet: Our relationship with food has become distorted — we see food in binaries: 1) good food, high in nutritional value and perhaps low in calories, and 2) bad food, which may be tasty but is comparatively higher in calories and lower in nutritional value.

We try to avoid the 'bad' foods because [for most of us] they are associated with guilt, but because they taste good we eventually end up eating them, which then leads to feelings of shame and regret. This pattern of restriction sets off a cycle of "eating clean" contributing towards bingeing — messing up our relationship with food. Food isn't good or bad, it only varies in nutritional content and does not come with a moral compass.

Myth: Starving will help you lose weight

Nazish: This one really kills me! So many of my clients just aren't eating enough! Starving the body sends our metabolism into storage mode, and there's only one form in which our bodies can do that; converting food into fat! Eventually, consuming too few calories backfires, big time!

Myth: You should not eat carbs after a certain timeframe or eat food late at night

Sameet: Our digestive system does not work based on time, it will digest food irrespective of when we consume it. Likewise, calories in foods do not change depending on the time they are consumed.

This myth comes from the idea that people usually binge when they come home from work at night, especially while watching TV, eating mindlessly and consequently over-consuming. The logic is that by restricting during those times, one can cut back on food intake, therefore reducing the number of calories consumed which may then result in weight loss.

But we know now that it's the number of calories that matter not the time of day/night. If you are aware of the calories consumed and you are making mindful choices you can have food at any time you want and still achieve your goals.

Myth: Women's hormones don't matter unless they're planning to get married one day and want to have kids.

Nazish: Women's hormones and the balance between them is very sensitive, even the slightest disruption can send an entire cycle off, and I don't mean just the sex hormone. Many other hormone cycles/cascades are linked to them.

So any fluctuations can offer unique insight into many areas of dysfunction in the body that aren't directly related to reproduction, such as diabetes and heart disease to name a few.

Myth: Artificial sweeteners are not safe, they lead to cancer

Sameet: Current research on artificial sweeteners being done on humans show that they do not cause cancer, they do not cause weight gain; in fact, they can help curb cravings and may help in weight loss.

Artificial sweeteners got a bad reputation due to studies 5 years ago which linked them to cancer and weight gain — this is when the myth about regular soft drinks being better than diet soft drinks came about.

But the research was fairly inconclusive and was done on rats. Our metabolism is (obviously) different from rats when it comes to the digestion of sugar.

The bottom line being, if you're aiming to achieve a fitness goal you want to be mindful and smart about your food choices.

Like Sameet said, as long as majority of your intake includes nutritious foods you can fit all kinds of foods in your diet; approaching food with flexibility rather than restriction will serve you well in the long run without yo-yoing in and out of your diet plan.

All content within this article is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. Always consult your own GP if you're in any way concerned about your health.

The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the author's.

The writer is a certified Pilates Instructor. You can follow her account here.


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Right Nov 23, 2020 02:48pm
Good article.
Alam Nov 23, 2020 03:40pm
We have substantial evidence about association of food and cancers, non communicable diseases. Particularly, sugar intake, meat, sausages. Sugar is also proven addictive. Studies based on guinea pigs could be a conclusive evidence.
Bilal Merchant Nov 23, 2020 05:10pm
Recent studies have clearly indicated that sugar as addictive as cocaine. I would urge you to look at experiments where mice were given doses of sugar in a controlled environment. It concluded contrary to what you have mentioned. We can't make generic statements such as either one is bad or good without any context. Generally sub continental diet patterns are pretty unhealthy. If you compare the data on diabetics and heart patients in this region it will give you an idea about why we should be taking drastic actions to reduce sugar intake. Regarding your comments on digestion at night time, it's studied and confirmed that at night time the body does go into slow mode and yes the digestion and other functions do not work at the same speed. Please search for BBC study, you will be able to find the link to the experiment that was under taken. We as a society consume bad foods more than good foods, to imply in an article that it's all good get on with it, is a bit naive.
Guest Nov 23, 2020 05:30pm
Artificial sweeteners are absolutely dangerous. My son got a reaction from aspartame in sugarfree chewing gum and only got better when he stopped eating it.
Ali Alvi Nov 23, 2020 06:00pm
Refined sugar/carbs are causing ‘insulin resistance’, which is a leading cause of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart attack, fatty liver syndrome etc. This article didn’t mention sugar and its relation with insulin, which is actually elephant in the room.
Omveer Singh Nov 23, 2020 06:08pm
Most of the food habits acquired by us are Western. They are loaded with empty calories and artificially flavoured for colder climates. The subcontinent rich and middle class has unfortunately developed a taste for the greasy fast foods that are not heart friendly. A checkpoint for eating could be: Would my grandfather have eaten this ?
Asad Nov 23, 2020 07:12pm
Refined sugar is bad, flour and salt are bad. Our body does not need these 3 things. Whatever we eat effects our body and cells die due to bad choices in food. I would recommend everyone to read Never be sick again by Raymond Francis to understand that every choice we make in food effects our short and long term health.
Janaka Nov 23, 2020 07:13pm
This is incorrect. Sugar is addictive and it is shown in research.. Late night dinner is shown to increase the cancer rate and obesity. Our hormones decides what happens to us...not calories. Intermittent fasting is proven way of of weight loss and diabetes treatment...this article is just common sense.. but not science.
Larry Jones Nov 23, 2020 07:19pm
What a crock of baloney! Sugar is BAD for you! It's been proven in countless studies.
Amjad Wyne Nov 23, 2020 07:47pm
Yes there are worse foods than sugar but do not minimize the damage that sugar can cause in human body
Imran A. Nov 23, 2020 08:06pm
Let it be clear that Sugar is the villain and natural salt (not chemical table salt) and natural fat are the 2 heroes to cure most of the illnesses. Carbs are naïve friends who have been influenced by evil hydrogenated oil (made from diesel) that clog our arteries. To make carbs even more dangerous, they have been irradiated to strip off any digestive enzymes and nutrients preventing us meagre modern age humans from feeling satiety. And yes, starving or fasting is inviting the maid to clean up the mess and detox the body. Artificial sugar is the sugar wolf and mono sodium glutamate is the wolf salt dressed in sheep's clothing. I'm afraid all the above myths are true and it's a horror movie. Last but not least, I need to have a chat with Sameet and Nazish.
Waheed Noor Nov 23, 2020 08:13pm
@Guest one example and you condemn a whole class of foods? I became allergic to onions (ever heard of Pakistani cuisine without onions?), then can I say onions are bad for everyone? I take antihistamines and deal with it.
Sameet Nov 23, 2020 08:18pm
@Bilal Merchant 1. we're not mice, unless mice have recently acquired the ability to type. 2. Sugar has addictive like properties because it makes food palatable but that doesn't mean it's addictive. When have you ever seen someone eat sugar straight out of the bag?
Sameet Nov 23, 2020 08:20pm
@Guest I'm sorry to hear about your son but just because one person had a reaction does not mean everybody does. By that logic, some people can't digest milk. So milk must be dangerous. Others can't process gluten so gluten must be dangerous for everyone??
Sameet Nov 23, 2020 08:29pm
@Ali Alvi did you know that protein and specifically dairy leads to a higher insulin response than sugar / carbs? So we should stop having protein too then!? No protein, no carbs. Let's just start drinking oil for all our meals. Sounds stupid, right?
Sameet Nov 23, 2020 08:30pm
@Asad our body doesn't need carbs as a whole to survive. But then again survival doesn't equal to optimal.
Sameet Nov 23, 2020 08:31pm
@Larry Jones almost all of those studies have calories as a confounding variable. I'd request you to share a study where sugar (by itself) led to negative consequences
Saltamontes Nov 23, 2020 08:46pm
@Alam I fully agree. I started to write a comment but you said it quite nicely.
Omar Nov 23, 2020 09:11pm
Eating sugar releases opioids and dopamine in our bodies. This is the link between added sugar and addictive behavior. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is a key part of the “reward circuit” associated with addictive behavior.
Iqbal Aswani Nov 23, 2020 09:18pm
There are foods with benefits and harm. Some have more benefits, some more harm. BUT, be clear: Refined Sugar has only and only harm. It has absolutely no benefit whatsoever to a normal person.
Syed Nov 23, 2020 09:34pm
Sugar is not itself bad. It's the amount of sugar we are consuming nowadays! Generally we consume more than a glass of cola, apart from this, desserts, sweets and other sweet things...
Sameet Nov 23, 2020 09:37pm
@Iqbal Aswani not really accurate. Sugar can provide energy. Ever watched any sports? Seen players gulp down Gatorade and all? Yeah that's basically all sugar.
Atif Khan Nov 23, 2020 09:39pm
White sugar in its highly processed form brings no benefit only harm. Harm like weight gain and obesity. Sweets that we once used to consume once in three months, we now consume daily because of affordability. This consumption tracks with the increase in weight issues.
NM Khan Nov 23, 2020 09:51pm
@Alam I absolutely agree with you and Bilal Merchant's comments re addiction to sugar. There is plenty of research to support this but here's a quick summary from a study done by the British Medical Journal which breaks it down well: In animal studies, sugar has been found to produce more symptoms than is required to be considered an addictive substance. Animal data has shown significant overlap between the consumption of added sugars and drug-like effects, including bingeing, craving, tolerance, withdrawal, cross-sensitisation, cross-tolerance, cross-dependence, reward and opioid effects. Sugar addiction seems to be dependence to the natural endogenous opioids that get released upon sugar intake. In both animals and humans, the evidence in the literature shows substantial parallels and overlap between drugs of abuse and sugar, from the standpoint of brain neurochemistry as well as behaviour.
Facepalm Nov 23, 2020 09:52pm
Interesting. I will research more on this. I wish people who are commenting would care to read the full article and not just the headline because it says that sugar has ZERO nutrients, it is NOT beneficial and it should only be eaten in minimal amounts otherwise it can *lead* to harmful effects. GENIUS LOG, READ THE FULL ARTICLE BEFORE COMMENTING.
Ali Alvi Nov 23, 2020 09:53pm
@Imran A. Totally agree! There are essential amino acids (building blocks for proteins) and essential fatty acids but no essential carbs. Infact, our bodies can create their own glucose as per requirement. Fasting causes autophagy, a process that removes waste and dysfunctional cells (which could lead to cancer). We only need to be fat adapted to handle long fasting periods, which our modern high carb diets renders impossible to achieve. Whats really irksome though is the fact that this article doesn’t mention refined sugar/carbs intake and its relationship with blood glucose level, satiety and most importantly, insulin resistance.
Ali Alvi Nov 23, 2020 10:01pm
@Sameet would you kindly share reference of any peer reviewed research paper? Btw its not just protein that results in insulin secretion, even fats stimulate pancreas to release insulin but the effect is negligible. Insulin in itself is good because it shuttles nutrients and energy (glucose) to cells. Refined carbs abuse this function of insulin and put them in an overdrive, that causes insulin resistance (our cells stop accepting insulin and as a result all the nutrients and energy from food).
Asim Malik Nov 23, 2020 10:02pm
The scientific and logical point is to eat in moderation.
Ashok De, Calgary Nov 23, 2020 10:45pm
Who can afford to even think of this sugar and diet stuff. Use the century old theory, eat sensibly, exercise regularly when you can and maintain your belt line.
sultan Nov 23, 2020 10:52pm
Eat all these processed, fried & high glycemic and high carb load foods and you are a sure candidate for type 2 diabetes. Being ethnic Asian or black African one is more prone to diabetes to start with. And our food habit enhances its progress.
D’Souza Nov 23, 2020 10:54pm
I agree with all points except sugar. It’s one of the most dangerous things and should be avoided.
Diabetic Nov 24, 2020 12:57am
Funny. The nutritionist says sugar isnt bad just as yet but is bad eventually
Hussein Nov 24, 2020 01:21am
Nutrition experts have helped many maintain or improve the waist line by eating heathy, intermittent fasting and exercise.
Chauhan Nov 24, 2020 03:04am
Listen to Dr. Lustig, Dr. Greger and Dr. Berg. Sugar is addictive and may lead to health problem. Plant based foods like vegetable and berries are heathy. Fast foods are bad and should only eaten occasionally. In some cases interval fasting has been found useful in loosing weight.
Chris Roberts Nov 24, 2020 03:41am
@Omveer Singh The (bad) food habits you are most likely referring to are originally specifically American - everything loaded with chemicals and synthetic additives, far too much sugar and salt, fat and grease. Generally, the various European cuisines require fresh ingredients and take time to prepare. By the way, samosas, pakoras, etc., are not American, yet are fried and greasy, and so damn delicious!
Awalmir Nov 24, 2020 05:02am
One conclusion I can draw from my years of awareness is that there's no one-size-fits-all solution to nutrition.
Omar Nov 24, 2020 05:47am
@Sameet you are so out of touch with reality/science. NO player uses Gatorade as a electrolyte replacement. You are talking about the early 90s, when it was the case. The Gatorade buckets/bottles are filled with water, just so Gatorade can still use it as a prop for sponsorship contract.
Pakman Nov 24, 2020 05:58am
Superb article!
Pedro Pascoal Nov 24, 2020 03:43pm
Sugar and fat is always the modern issue. For the point of history we never had so much sugar products as now. You can have one or the other but both is dangerous. My opinion is just cut the most of sugar as possible and processed foods. As for the rest I agree mostly with all. It's funny that after all this time there is no clear formula to been health. Just a side note gut bacteria is also very very important in been healthy.
Zubair Nov 24, 2020 03:49pm
I want to chime in here as a member of the global sugar elite. There is a popular myth that sugar is as addictive as cocaine, but the study that found that was particularly flawed and contributed more towards the consumption of sugar than deterrence. Sugar in itself is not harmful, but the quantities and combinations in which it is consumed is. Put down the donut, skip the jalebi, forget about kilo of mithai in your fridge, avoid sodas and stop blaming sugar for your own unhealthy eating habits. Sugar manufacturers are not drug dealers nor are they holding a gun to your head. They are engineers, salesmen, accountants, loaders etc fulfilling your demands.
FB Nov 24, 2020 05:22pm
@Asad “every choice we make in food effects our short and long term health.” You don’t need to read a book to know that.
Andrea Nov 25, 2020 01:36am
Sugar is fine? Hello 1950s, the future filled with children developing type 2 diabetes would like to disagree.
Ravi Sanku Nov 26, 2020 09:29am
Amazingly well written. Society has demonized food. Thanks for undoing that and we need more articles like this to expel the fears and misconceptions about eating and enjoying food.