Some say that any time you eat sugar, you are “flipping a switch” that tells your body to store fat.
Diet books tell you to avoid it at all costs.
Newspaper headlines claim that it’s “more addictive” than cocaine.
But is sugar really as bad as everyone says it is? Can you eat sugar and still lose weight?
What is Sugar?
The crusade against sugar has left a lot of people worried about eating anything with “sugars” listed on the nutrition label.
However, sugar and sugars are not the same thing.
When most people talk about sugar, they’re referring to table sugar – the white stuff you put in your tea or coffee.
The term sugar can refer to one of several sources of carbohydrate, including glucose (also known as dextrose), lactose, fructose, maltose, galactose or sucrose.
When newspaper headlines announce that “zero-fat yogurts can contain five teaspoons of sugar,” it’s easy to come away with the impression that yogurt has five teaspoons of table sugar in it.
The reality is not as simple, and doesn’t make for such good headlines.
The sugar found naturally in dairy products is known as lactose. It’s a simple sugar consisting of glucose and galactose joined together. Sucrose, the name for table sugar, is made when fructose and glucose are joined together.
In other words, some of the “sugars” in yogurt will be in the form of lactose. The rest — depending on the type of yogurt and how it’s made — will normally come from sucrose.
When you see “sugars” listed on the nutrition label of a food, it can refer to one or more of several simple sugars, and not just sucrose.
Carrots, for example, contain a mixture of sucrose, glucose and fructose. The sugars in a sweet potato come from sucrose, glucose, fructose and maltose. Glucose and fructose are the sugars found in a tomato.
Sugar and Weight Loss: What the Science Says
Given that so many fingers are pointing at sucrose as the “bad boy” of the nutrition world, it’s worth taking a closer look at how this particular sugar affects your ability to lose weight.
Researchers from Florida examined the impact of four diets containing different levels of sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) on the amount of weight lost over a 12-week period .
Like sucrose, HFCS contains both fructose and glucose. Most of the HFCS used in soft drinks contains 55% fructose and 42% glucose (with the other 3% coming from glucose polymers). Sucrose is a 50/50 split between the two .
The only real difference between sucrose and HFCS is that the glucose and fructose in sucrose is bonded together. In HFCS, they’re not. However, this doesn’t affect the way your body deals with both sugars, as the bonds are broken once sucrose reaches your stomach.
A group of 247 overweight or obese subjects was divided into five groups. The diets in groups 1-4 were designed to create a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day. The fifth group made no changes to their diet and acted as a control group.
- Group one got 10% of their total calories from HFCS
- Group two got 20% of their total calories from HFCS
- Group three got 10% of their total calories from sucrose
- Group four got 20% of their total calories from sucrose
If sucrose or HFCS was “flipping a switch” that tells your body to store fat, you’d expect to see a greater rate of weight loss in the two groups consuming the least amount of sugar.
But of the 162 participants who completed the study, there was no difference in weight loss between the groups.
In a similar trial, researchers from Edinburgh also found no significant difference in weight loss when sucrose provided either 5% or 10% of total calories .
After eight weeks, subjects in the 10% sucrose group lost slightly more weight (6.6 pounds, or 3 kilograms) compared to those in the 5% sucrose group (2.2 kilograms, or 4.8 pounds).
But the difference between the groups wasn’t large enough to reach statistical significance.
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What happens when sucrose intake is even higher?
Researchers from Duke University Medical Center placed 42 women on either a high- or low-sucrose diet for six weeks .
In the low-sucrose diet, only 4% of the total calories came from sucrose. In the high-sucrose diet, 43% of the total calories came from sucrose, which comes to a whopping 121 grams of sucrose per day.
Once again, there was no significant difference in weight loss between the two groups.
In a review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Dutch researcher Wim Saris looked at a number of different studies on the subject of sugar and weight control .
“These weight-loss studies with different types and amounts of carbohydrates including high and low sucrose do not indicate that weight loss is impaired by high-sucrose, energy-restricted diets.”
Is Sugar More Addictive Than Cocaine… Really?
One of the more bizarre stories I’ve come across in recent times is the idea that sugar is “a drug that is more rewarding and addictive than cocaine.”
It’s a theory based on research showing that certain parts of the brain “light up” when you eat sugar.
And those are the same parts of the brain that light up when you take cocaine.
It all sounds very worrying and disturbing.
But, having thought deeply about this subject for at least 30 seconds, there are a few things that don’t add up.
For one, there is some sugar sat in my kitchen right now this very minute.
It’s been there for several years.
At no point have I felt compelled to run into the kitchen, grab a spoon and start eating sugar straight out of the bag.
The last time I went food shopping in Tesco, I was not accompanied by three former members of the SAS, whose sole purpose was to protect me from the rampaging hordes of sugar junkies running around in search of their next sugar fix.
When a team of scientists from the University of Cambridge looked into the research on the subject, they found the evidence for sugar addiction “far from convincing.” 
Publishing their findings in the European Journal of Nutrition, they found “little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans, and findings from the animal literature suggest that addiction-like behaviors, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar. These behaviors likely arise from intermittent access to sweet tasting or highly palatable foods, not the neurochemical effects of sugar.”
In fact, most research on the subject has failed to find any strong evidence that people are addicted to sugar.
While people can develop a psychological compulsion to eat, this is driven more by the positive feelings that the brain associates with eating, rather than an addiction to food per se .
That is, people can become “addicted to eating for its own sake, but not to consuming specific foods such as those high in sugar or fat.”
In their paper, titled “Sugar addiction: the state of the science,” researchers from the University of Cambridge conclude :
“We find little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans, and findings from the animal literature suggest that addiction-like behaviours, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar. These behaviours likely arise from intermittent access to sweet tasting or highly palatable foods, not the neurochemical effects of sugar.”
Hyper-Palatable Foods: The Real Problem
Foods that are high in sugar – cookies, chocolate bars, soft drinks, ice cream and so on – can and do make a significant contribution to fat gain.
But that’s not because you’re addicted to sugar.
It’s because those foods taste very nice. In scientific lingo, they are called hyper-palatable foods. The term refers to food that tastes good and that you want to eat more of, even when you’re not really hungry.
Hyper-palatable foods contain a lot more than just sugar. They’re often a mix of starch, sugar, fat and salt.
They taste nice.
They look good.
They feel good in your mouth.
What is hyper-palatable for one person might not be for another. Some people can binge on sweet foods, while others prefer something savory. It varies from person to person.
Hyper-palatable foods are an extremely convenient and pleasurable way to provide your body with more energy than it needs – energy that will eventually end up stored as fat.
How the Food Giants Get You Hooked
The other day, I was reading an article called The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food
It was all about the lengths that food companies go to “optimize” their products, with the intent of finding the most “perfect” version that will cause you to eat as much of the stuff as humanly possible.
Here’s a snippet:
Ordinary consumers are paid to spend hours sitting in rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is in question. Their opinions are fed into a computer, which determines what features will be most attractive to consumers.
[One company] had a formidable research complex near Dallas, where nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians conducted research that cost up to $30 million a year.
Their tools included a $40,000 device that simulated a chewing mouth to test and perfect potato chips, discovering things like the perfect break point: people like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch.
The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.
As a rule of thumb, I don’t like to “ban” certain foods.
For one, it’s not necessary. As long as your diet is set up properly, it’s possible to lose fat while still eating many of the foods you enjoy.
And human nature being what it is, if you know you can’t have something, you tend to want it all the more.
However, there are certain foods – especially if they’re enhanced with mathematically-determined flavor combinations and artificial flavor enhancers – that have the potential to push you off course.
I can’t tell you what those foods are, because they’re different for everyone.
For me, custard creams pose a particular challenge. If there’s a packet of custard creams in my kitchen, the chances are very high that they won’t be here this time tomorrow. That’s because once the pack is open, I will eat the lot.
An ex-girlfriend once declared that I needed “psychological help” after seeing me polish off a family-sized pack of biscuits in one sitting.
It’s the same story with Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes. I can quite easily get through an entire bowl, and still feel the exact same level of hunger I did before eating them.
So, when I’m trying to lose fat, I make sure there are no custard creams or crunchy nut cornflakes in the house.
Psychologically, foods that are considered “bad” can also cause some people to come unstuck.
They take an all or nothing approach to diet and exercise, and any kind of unplanned deviation marks the end of the diet and the start of a junk food binge that can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
While I don’t think this type of behavior falls into the category of an eating disorder, you could probably label it as a form of disordered eating.
On the flip side, removing the “good” or “bad” label from certain foods can take away a lot of the guilt associated with eating those foods.
It’s human nature to want the things you can’t have, and if you plan to have a slice of cake (or whatever you fancy) as part of your diet, my guess is that you’ll want it less.
There was an interesting study done along those lines that looked at two groups of clinically obese adults .
In both groups, protein intake was well above the threshold required to maintain lean body mass. Both groups also consumed the same number of calories. There was just one key difference.
The first group ate a 300-calorie low-carbohydrate breakfast. The second group ate a 600-calorie breakfast that also included a “dessert” every day.
This was a sweet food selected from the following list:
- ice cream
- chocolate mousse
At week 16, there was very little difference in weight loss between the two groups – 33 pounds in the low-carb group and 30 pounds in the dessert-for-breakfast group.
From week 16 to week 32, the low-carbohydrate group regained much of the weight they lost, while the dessert-for-breakfast group carried on losing weight.
The researchers also looked at hunger (the physiological need for food, which usually manifests itself as a growling stomach) and satiety (the physiological and psychological experience of “fullness” that comes after eating).
They found that hunger scores were significantly lower and satiety scores significantly higher in subjects eating dessert for breakfast compared to those who didn’t.
That’s not to say that you should eat cookies, ice cream or donuts for breakfast. Nor does it mean that there’s anything inherently wrong with low-carbohydrate diets.
As long as a few dietary boxes are being ticked, you can lose weight on a wide variety of diets, just as long as that diet is one you can stick to.
If you want to step aboard the anti-sugar train and attempt to eliminate every gram of sugar from your diet, go right ahead. But you’re playing the game on hard mode.
Contrary to what the zero sugar brigade might tell you, sugar in and of itself does not make you fat.
In fact, when total calorie intake is matched, most human studies show little difference in weight loss with a diet containing lots of sugar compared to one containing almost no sugar at all.
As long as you account for it in your daily carbohydrate budget, including some sugar in your diet isn’t going to have a big impact on your results one way or the other.