One of the first emails that popped into my inbox one recent morning suggested that sugar is as bad as crystal meth.
Let’s look at this more closely.
Crystal Meth vs. Sugar
It’s clear. Crystal meth in no way, shape or form could be interpreted as something that supports health. Use of it at all can wreak havoc in your life, not the least of which is sudden death. Nope, it’s not something to play around with.
On the other hand, any of the negative effects of sugar have to do with how much of it we eat.
And it’s true. Americans tend to eat too much sugar. That means we have less nutritious diets – eating too many high-sugar foods leaves no room for the more nutritious stuff. When we don’t get the nutrients we need, our health is at risk. Eating too much sugar can also contribute to tooth decay because of the acids produced in our mouth after eating it.
But research shows no ill effects from eating moderate amounts of sugar. Indeed, moderate amounts of sugar can make healthy eating more pleasurable. And pleasure is key to eating healthfully for a lifetime. If we don’t like it, we won’t keep doing it. Research shows that, too.
If you worry whether sugar is addictive, this recent review of the scientific literature might put your mind to rest.
So in reality, the closest crystal meth and sugar get to each other is the fact that they are both crystalline and white. End of story.
Unfortunately, however, claims like the one in the aforementioned email are quite dangerous.
The Real Danger: Demonizing Sugar
The real dangers of demonizing sugar have nothing to do with the substance itself. Instead, they are about how we think about it. Here’s why.
Food fears increase food obsessions. Most often, when well-liked foods or ingredients are considered off-limits, that’s what people tend to focus on. It’s the old adage – forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest. Talk to people who binge eat and you will often find that trying to eliminate certain foods just sets them up for more bingeing.
Extremism about food causes people to give up. Taste is the #1 reason people choose the foods they do. So when the foods they like to eat end up on the “not allowed” list, they may try to cut them out. But instead, they not only end up eating them but overeating them. It’s the “what the hell” effect: “ I can’t do this so why even try”.
A focus on food as the problem distracts from the real issues. In today’s world, people often don’t eat well for two primary reasons:
1. We are often too busy taking care of everything and everyone else to make feeding ourselves well a priority in their lives. That leads to the grab-and-go method of eating, which generally doesn’t mean the most health-supportive choices, and
2. The diet mentality (which demonizing sugar feeds into) dictates what, when and how much we are “supposed” to eat, which often doesn’t match our physical needs and/or psychological desires. That then leads to overeating when we get too hungry or feel deprived of foods we want to eat.
Mindful Eating as a Solution
Rather than demonizing food or its ingredients, mindful eating offers a way to get in touch with what your body and mind need for health and well-being.
When you eat mindfully, you don’t make food decisions based on whether they are “good” or “bad”. Instead, you consider what would taste good to you as well as feel good in your body, not only while you eat but afterwards, too.
Many people who eat mindfully enjoy sweet foods. But they generally don’t enjoy them to excess because the pleasurable flavor starts to fade and even not taste as pleasing after a point. The benefit of mindful eating is that you stay aware so that you notice when this starts to happen.
Then, stopping eating something like ice cream becomes a matter of what you want to do, not what you “have “ to do.
And that, folks, can mean a world of difference to whether you can actually do it on an ongoing basis.
So let’s cut out the food fears and start to eat mindfully, paying attention to what our body and minds tell us via our internal systems that evolved to very accurately tell us what, when and how much to eat for well-being.
My definition of healthy eating can help: Eating what feels good in the moment and after you get up from the table.
Here’s to yummy eating!
Marsha Hudnall is president and co-owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a women’s retreat for healthy weight and well-being, where she has been teaching mindful eating for over 30 years. She is also the incoming president of The Center for Mindful Eating.