According to the calories-in-calories-out approach, a daily 2,000 calories of cookies and ice cream is just fine because you likely won’t gain weight. Meanwhile, it’s actually harder to feel satisfied on that amount of sugar-based food because calories are so much more condensed, besides which eating a little chocolate generally makes people want more chocolate – and so, this approach isn’t very sustainable for most people, nevermind the worrisome lack of essential nutrient. Furthermore, a calorie is not the same as any other calorie – metabolic consequences can differ drastically.
Sugar, in particular, even when not increasing total caloric intake, is linked to insulin resistance and high triglyceride levels, and thus increased likelihood of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It can even lead to tooth decay in the absence of adequate dental care. The World Health Organization and American Heart Association sets 100-150 calories (or 5% of total calories) as the limit on added sugars daily. That’s less than a can of pop, less than a chocolate bar. Even naturally occurring sugars, as in fruit, are only overall healthier because they come with vitamins and minerals, therefore those sugars should also be limited – the USDA recommends two cups of fruit per day.
One meal high in sugar won’t cause any lasting harmful effect overnight – even potential weight bloating goes away after a few days. Over time, though, chronically high sugar consumption can speed up our aging process and lower our cognitive functioning. Not to mention, it’s been shown that sugar activates the same regions of the brain as cocaine. In fact, a study showed mice overwhelmingly chose sugar over cocaine. There is even a convincing argument the inflammatory effect is linked to depression and anxiety.
Most health associations recommend moderation in everything, including sugar. The intention, one assumes, is to propose the most realistic improvement, or “reduced harm” as is an approach to drug addiction. Many health professionals, meanwhile, insist on “zero sugar,” some including fruit fructose. One theory is that keeping even a small amount of conventional candy in rotation will continue cravings for sugar as well as offset nutritional value from otherwise healthy meals, and even maintain side effects some people experience like headaches or the crash-and-burn of a “sugar high.”
My personal opinion, at this point in time, is to advocate for a modified cold turkey approach. For example:
- I am currently obsessed with President’s Choice chocolate peanut butter ice cream. This is first on my list to replace, reduce, and ideally eliminate. I believe it might be more effective to target that goal before going on to reduce the next worst culprit.
- When ready, I want to try out a day without any added sugar and keep total sugar (including naturally forming) for each meal below 5g, i.e. 1 tsp. I want to see how it feels. Maybe try it for a week. I definitely don’t want to calculate forever, but I understand the need to practice until I develop instinct on how much sugar works for me.
- The most important element in all this is to avoid feeling too stressed and behaving too strictly around sugar. I want to be able to eat ice cream every once in awhile without thinking and feeling too much about it.