What Will It Take for Us to Stop Eating Sugar?

Haley Nahman | January 4, 2017

A shit-ton of proof, apparently.

When I first saw the New York Times headline, my fingers dragged like heavy feet at the outset of a run. I didn’t want to click “The Case Against Sugar.” But my reluctance to read the story was ultimately the thesis of the entire thing. Doctors, scientists and researchers have increasingly been telling us that sugar is poison, and we don’t want to hear it.

In just the last month:
The Sugar WarsThe Atlantic 
A Month Without SugarNew York Times
How Much Sugar Can You Avoid Today?New York Times 
Is Sugar Killing Us?Wall Street Journal

Hint: yes.

You’ll find one character bobbing and weaving his way through this narrative: Gary Taubes. He’s the author of a book by the same name, those four dirty words: The Case Against SugarIn it, he explores the corrupt past of sugar and how and why it has, in some ways, enjoyed a free pass from proper scrutiny for so long.

Writes Dan Barber in his Times Book Review: “Taubes begins with a kick in the teeth. Sugar is not only the root cause of today’s diabetes and obesity epidemics (had these been infectious diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have long ago declared an emergency), but also, according to Taubes, is probably related to heart disease, hypertension, many common cancers and Alzheimer’s.”

Barber cites Taubes’ long history of trying to pull the wool off our eyes in regards to sugar, including his 2002 New York Times cover story wherein he sought to debunk the myth about fat: “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” He wrote, “If the members of the American medical establishment were to have a collective find-yourself-standing-naked-in-Times-Square-type nightmare, this might be it.”

Turns out he was right. Just this past September, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco unearthed documents that proved Big Sugar — the biggest corporate player in the candy and soda industries — paid off Harvard scientists in the 1960s to downplay sugar’s link to heart disease and instead place the blame on saturated fat. This ideology took off. “For many decades, health officials encouraged Americans to reduce their fat intake,” wrote the Times, “which led many people to consume low-fat, high-sugar foods that some experts now blame for fueling the obesity crisis.”

Not only is sugar bad for your health, it’s also addictive. I, for one, will do or say almost anything so that I don’t have to stop. (A quick read through the NCADD’s signs and symptoms of addiction draws ominous parallels for me.) I’ve even gone so far as to say people who eat less sugar are boring. Taubes draws some of the same comparisons, saying that asking how much sugar is too much sugar is like asking how many cigarettes are too many cigarettes.

Gulp.

It’s hard to hear. Sugar is deeply ingrained in our culture. We eat it to celebrate, to cheer up, to socialize, to enjoy ourselves. And then there’s the dependence factor. “Sugar stimulates brain pathways just as an opioid would,” wrote the Times back in 2014, “and sugar has been found to be habit-forming in people. Cravings induced by sugar are comparable to those induced by addictive drugs like cocaine and nicotine.”

In 1972, Jon Yudkin claimed that the rise of sugar in the West coincided with the rise in heart disease, diabetes and obesity in his book Pure, White and Deadly. It’s a bold claim and has been hard to prove. “Then, as now, there was no decisive test of his idea — no perfect way to make the case that sugar kills,” wrote Daniel Engber in The Atlantic. “It’s practically impossible to run randomized, controlled experiments on human diets over many years, so the brief against sugar, like the case against any other single foodstuff, must be drawn from less reliable forms of testimony: long-term correlations, animal experiments, evolutionary claims, and expert judgments.”

Long-term correlations aren’t sexy. But, if we’re smart, we’ll start listening.

For more sugar buzzkills (sorry) read about when we asked a doctor about sugar.

Photo by Krista Anna Lewis.

  • I read that Times piece, A Month Without Sugar, on New Year’s Day, and my interest was def piqued. Granted I have yet to try it out but there is a part of me that’s curious what would happen if I were to forgo sugar for 30 days.

    Perhaps…perhaps that piece is the basis of an upcoming MR post? Haley? Amelia? Bueller?

    • Lillian

      It’s agony. I never considered myself to have a sweet tooth but it’s all I could think about. And it’s in EVERYTHING. Was so plagued by cravings that I made a now disgusting Pinterest board of all the desserts I’d eat when it was over 😐

  • Abby

    I’m trying to cut out sugar right now (it’s been almost a week with zero sugar!) and this post honestly made me hardcore crave a cupcake. Like just seeing the word sugar had me salivating. Send help.

    • I believe in u YOU CAN DO IT

    • i started eating a lot more ‘good’ carbs like rice and potatoes and bananas when i became vegetarian and now i almost never crave sugar, and before i was so attracted to chocolate i could eat the whole bar myself, especially during pms, so maybe eating more carbs can help!

    • ashley

      you CAN do it! every day strung together helps, love the below. I read a long time ago craving sugar is often your bod asking for complex carbs, sweet potato rice pasta etc, and cravings for salty like French fries is really when you can quell with good fat, Avo toast {millet/ezek} baby!

    • Mariana

      Pretty much seven months sugar-free, ever since I had a tonsillectomy and stop tasting sugar!
      It is very slowly coming back. But I don’t crave it anymore.
      I was a total sugar addict, and not tasting anything sweet got me feeling my life was over. Guess what? You get over it and life goes on.
      I don’t even crave it anymore…
      Another plus side? I lost 30 pounds in seven months and finally got rid of my baby weight YAY.

      • Mariana

        STOPPED tasting sugar, sorry.

  • nicolacash

    I did Whole 30 back in September which cuts out sugar, and it was DEFINITELY the hardest part of the diet. Chocolate is just so good I don’t think I could give it up permanently.

    • Leandra Medine

      but how did you feel at the end of the “challenge” ???

      • nicolacash

        I felt happy that I was 12 pounds lighter, but it was also euphoric to eat chocolate again after it ended so…win some lose some haha

  • Sugar has been on my mind. I need a real guide with strategies for phasing sugar out of my diet. I really eat a lot of sugar. Chocolate candies, Christmas cookies, ice cream. I can’t imagine giving these things up. Is moderation an option here?

    • Leandra Medine

      im with you. sometimes pineapple as a substitute works, often it doesn’t. bananas though!

    • Adrianna

      It took me some time to accept that I had a high tolerance for sugar. I used to drink a 8oz mug of tea with three tablespoons of sugar. Tablespoons. I drank can after can of Sunkist orange soda. (I recently checked a single serving bottle – 72 grams of sugar!) I even added sugar to roasted vegetables because I saw Giada de Laurentiis do it. (But caramelization, right?)

      I cut it all out cold turkey. I lost almost 50 pounds in less than six months and kept it off for over five years. I ate apple pie during lunch today, so I don’t follow any sort of diet. Moderation is easy because now most desserts taste overly sweet and gross.

    • ashley

      on BOARD with leandra here, I did whole thirty with my husband over summer, and one night we had grilled steak and pineapple outside, tasted better than candy. I remember thinking this is hands down the best tasting thing I’d ever eaten – also helped that we were two weeks in so maybe my palette was sharpened/heightened?

    • Julia Park

      The best sugar/dessert substitute I’ve found is eating 1/4 – 1/2 a pomegranate. Something about the act of pulling out the seeds, the juice, and incredible red color usually helps me to forgo an added sugar-full item.

      • BK

        If you want quick access to pomegranate goodness, cut it into quarters, submerge it in a bowl of water and pull it apart under the surface. All the boring inedible bits float to the top and the little gems sink to the bottom!

        • Julia Park

          Ohhhh, thanks for the tip!

          • BK

            Don’t thank me. Thank the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who I once saw do it on a cooking show

    • kittenish

      I stopped cold turkey in september (doctor’s orders, been diagnosed with insulin resistence, aka almost-diabetes). the first week was HELL. ever since it’s been fine. i eat something sugary every once in a while but no longer get very bad cravings and i feel a whole lot better!

    • Antoinette

      Hi Julia,
      I stopped eating sugar 12 or 13 years ago by accident. I went on the south beach diet with my girlfriend because she needed company. I stayed true to it and when I got off, I think it was 14 days later, I got my coffee with sugar and it was disgustingly sweet. That ended my relationship with processed sugar. Now I eat tons of bananas and a handful of dates daily for extra sweetness. I eat a ton of fruit normally, but bananas are the sweetest things I eat. Both my sisters cut sugar a few years back and although it was difficult, they are doing good. My husband who has the a serious sweet tooth cut out sugar last march and said he didn’t have a single craving after about 2 months. I think if you can stick it out, your body stops craving it:-) If you find strategies for phasing out, please share as I have tons of family and friends who are struggling!

    • Lillian

      Put two frozen bananas in a food processor with a sprinkle of cinnamon. I swear TA GOD you can’t tell it’s not ice cream.

    • Haley Nahman

      My mom is super into this Always Hungry method. It totally changed her life! https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00W22IKBK/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

  • the best i’ve ever felt is when i cut out sugar. i also looked sooo fly. it’s just so gosh darn difficult! only plus: vodka sodas are sugar free.

    • Whatwould Slashdo

      the body turns any alcohol back to sugar, so might not be added sugar in them but they will still behave as sugar as far as diet goes.

      • oh totally. hence why i am no gisele. but goshdarnit i can’t give those up.

  • Jill

    Ohhh…sugar. It’s evil. I recently finished six week of the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. My Dr suspects that I have Lupus (in addition to Fibromyalgia and very chronic pain) so she wanted me to try this. It doesn’t just cut out sugar. It cuts out EVERY potentially inflammatory food (which doesn’t leave much) for six weeks (or longer for some people). As hard as it was, I found it very beneficial in many ways. Because at the end of the program, you start slowly introducing potentially inflammatory foods to see what you react to. So far I can tell that sugar is a serious issue. I don’t normally eat much of it (after spending many years as a sugar-holic, I’ve been weaning myself down from it over the last few years) but having a slice of my husband’s holiday pie – I told him, “my taste buds love it. but my body does not” – I hurt, my stomach was upset and bloated, I got a headache – and this happened as well with several other refined sugar products over the holiday season (my Protocol ended 12/15 so I did some slight indulging for the last two weeks of December). And without anything else inflammatory in my system, I could really tell – immediately – the sugar effects. Which means that now that the holidays are over, I have no problem cutting the indulgences. The good news is that chocolate by itself did not have the same effect (thank god), nor does wine (I typically only drink white) – hurrah! I’ve actually been able to add in most of the foods I couldn’t eat (eggs, nuts, seeds, butter, to name a few) and haven’t had problems. But sugar is definitely at least one of the culprits. And I haven’t tried dairy yet – though I don’t normally eat much of it – or starches / carbs – anyway. One of the best things about the Protocol is that in addition to helping me find out what affects me the most, is that it made me so very much aware of what’s in so many of our processed food items. Because you couldn’t have mayo, ketchup (almost all commercial ketchups have soy (not allowed) and sugar and all sorts of other stuff…even “natural” salad dressings have so much sh*t in them if you really read the labels. Very educational and yes. Sugar is at the very top of the “evil foods” heap.

  • dk

    In October I cut sugar for a month. It was astonishingly easy for someone like me, who by the end of September drank her morning coffee with a Cookie, ate something sweet in the afternoon and chocolate after dinner. Fun fact: I live 5 km away from the Lindt Factory in Germany, where they sell their marvelous chocolate at a discounted price.
    So, I did the whole month. And every time I had to explain why I’m doing it. For me, the particularly scary stuff is that sugar affects your brain the way drugs and not the way normal food do. After one month, I felt accomplished, but did eventually got back into the almost daily habit of eating sweets. Interesting though, for the first two weeks after the sugar-free month, I always got stomach aches when I ate sweets. But then came Christmas and I’m basically back to old business.
    I wanna quit sugar once and for all; I’ll probably order even this book to talk myself into it. But it’s haaard. I have a sweet tooth and I use chocolate as an emotional comforter. I deal with stress, joy and anger by one way – chocolate. That’s my biggest crutch.
    Sugar is bad, I know it, my body apparently knew it, and yet I can’t seem to quit it.

  • Grace B

    I’ve been thinking about this now for four long years. I first saw Dr. Robert Lustig’s Sugar Is Bad talk on youtube in 2012. Immediately took a break from sugar for two weeks. In 2014 I took a break for a month. One of the best tricks I have is 500 mg of glutamine whenever you’re feeling a sugar craving — stops it in its tracks. And now? I just drank a loooooot of holiday lattes, ate tons of cookies, and ice cream during the holidays. What’s more important to me than no sugar however is more water, quality sleep, and regular exercise. Frankly, people in high-brow, middle class, upper middle class, and predominantly white (myself included) are those typically abstaining from food groups. People are not going to stop eating sugar, buying sugar, or craving sugar. I went from obsessively reading about health & suffering from a lot of ailments (itching, gastrointestinal problems, yeast, etc) and they all went away when I stopped being paranoid and constantly trying to fix myself.

    All of this to say — I don’t want to belittle anyone’s health issues, but some are just overblown. Moderation for me is coffee without sugar or tea, some chocolate daily, and trying to eat more of a Ayurvedic diet (no ice cream in winter, for example) while also focusing on exercise, sleep, healthy relationships. And I’m willing to be realistic to say that I don’t expect my fellow Americans to suddenly give a F about Taubes’ work. Anyone who has worked in low-income populations might also agree that sugar is just one piece of the food issue and just one of many issues affecting the most underserved in our communities. Dr. Yoni Freedhoff has a great piece on this too.

    KthanxBye!

  • Rose

    Diabetes runs deep in my family, so sugar is something I have struggled with my entire life. I have found the easiest way to start eliminating sugar from my diet was to start with specifics–baby steps. I started with completely cutting candy and soft drinks out first and made progress from there.

  • the fox forgot

    I have successfully cut out sugar enough to the point where if I eat something I normally would find delicious, I get grossed out.

    I switched my nightly chocolate with Lily’s Chocolate (it is sweetened with Stevia, but doesn’t taste weird. In fact, it’s fantastic!). I may have a bit of honey on my plain Greek yogurt /oatmeal in the morning. And I still have smoothies and fruit and naturally sweet things.

    But once you go skipping sugar at every opportunity – no sugar or cream in my boring tea, please – it starts to feel like an imposter.

    It was a gradual thing for me, but after a while sugar started to taste cloying, and I associated it more with inflammation and cavities than with delight.

    Speaking of cavities, I’m a crappy adult who hasn’t had her teeth cleaned since 2013 (ahhhh!!). I was terrified to show my face at the dentist yesterday, but was surprised to learn I had no cavities. My husband, who never misses a check up, had SIX. He’s a soda drinker (still working on that one).

    I got all kinds of decedent sweets (macrons, exotic truffles) and homemade cookies as gifts for the holidays, and I ended up just bringing them to other parties to share.

    I used to be the kind of kid that ate brownies for breakfast breakfast. If I can make this change, I feel like anyone can!

    It just takes time for your palette to adjust itself.

  • Rachel

    I am THRILLED MR is writing a piece on this. Sugar is a drug. You can get addicted to it without even totally noticing. It’s a silent, deadly killer. For myself, I have literally cut any/all sugar (with the exception of small cheats here and there for holidays, etc.) and it CHANGED MY LIFE. Deeper sleep, clear skin, softer hair… I could go on. The obvious of course is weight loss, but even outside of that I have more energy. Srsly. Most of my meals now are meat and vegetable based, no soda- only sparkling water, and any deserts I might want to splurge on are all sugar free (Halo Top ice cream guys, try it.). I’m so so happy that MR is writing a story about this. I’ve been a personal trainer for some time, listening to Taubes speak before at a conference back in 2013 and since then listening to people say “sugar is fine in moderation” has made me sick. It’s a drug & i’m so so happy MR is doing a part in educating people so they can make informed decisions on what they want to put in their body. If people are uninterested in this issue all together that’s totally fine! But it’s important to me that people understand the risk and legitimate science behind sugar before they make the choice of what to put in their body. Food is fuel. Thanks for the piece MR!

  • Allison

    I know it’s still not great, and have heard plenty about their negatives as well, but can we please still have artificial sweeteners once in a while?! My coworker swears that an occasional “real” Coke is better than my occasional Diet, but gosh darn it, I NEED one!

  • Trudi

    I have been very interested in cutting out sugar for a while, but have no clue how to do that without going completely Atkins/carb free or whatever. Sugar is in EVERYTHING. So by cutting out sugar, does that also mean all breads, pastas, fruits, some vegetables, dairy, condiments, etc? Inquiring minds want to know! 🙂

    • kittenish

      I’m not sure how much info is available on this in english (i’m hungarian), but I do a carb diet that is usually prescribed for people stuggling with PCOS and/or diabetes (i have a condition called insulin resistence, which is kind of a pre-diabetes/pre-PCOS thing). I had to cut out sugar and switch to whole grain breads and pastas, i buy no premade foods which contain sugar or white flour. it doesn’t mean you have to go completely carb free (your brain needs carbs to funcion!), you should just pay attention to the quality of said carbs, ie. how fast your body absorbs them and how much of them your eat. i realize this sounds somewhat pretentious, but eating this way has helped me a lot and i feel so much better.
      if you do decide to cut out sugar be prepared for withdrawal symptoms, the first week for me was absolutely terrible – i was constantly hungry and irritated and craving sugar but then it just ended and i was no longer miserable.

  • Sara Moreni

    I have been trying to eat more healthily for the past few years but I am honestly so confused by the huge quantity of contradictory information around.

    When we talk about quitting sugar, for example – are we referring to added sugar? Is brown rice/pasta ok? And what about fruit and vegetables? And can I have a glass of wine?

    I honestly would not have a problem quitting some foods if I knew whether they are actually bad for your. Some believe all meat, dairy and eggs should be cut out (I’m only talking about health reasons here rather than ethical). Others say that all sugar (including fruit) should be cut out. And then there are people advocating fruit-only diets.

    My approach has been moderation and eating a little of everything, but every so often an article comes out stating that even if you touch sugar/dairy/meat/any other food you are poisoning yourself. And if you go even deeper and consider the possibility of pesticides, foods with high LED content (tuna, turmeric, seafood in general), antibiotics in farmed meat/fish, additives (e.g. is it better to eat oat milk with additives, or dairy milk?)… it feels like a lost battle.

    Not sure I can live on celery alone…

    • BK

      I feel the same and have a similar moderation-based approach. A lot of the new facts about food & nutrition are based on quality scientific research but the findings tend to get blown out of proportion or dumbed down by news outlets in the name of a good story. And honestly, there seems to be new findings coming out every day – I’m just going to eat a little of everything and wait for research to finally declare my lifestyle as healthy! It’s bound to happen sooner or later!

    • Right? It’s hard to know what’s actually the truth.
      I’m vegetarian and just try to eat as balanced as I can. Lots of fruits & veggies, ‘good carbs’ like quinoa, and lentils/beans/nuts for protein … but I have a pretty big sweet tooth. I try to limit my sugar consumption on weekdays and treat myself on weekends.
      I think you’d have to eat a LOT of sugar for it to be your main cause of death. I don’t think it’s the best for us, but people have been eating sugar for centuries and have lived healthy lives.

      • Dian Xiao

        I think the “LOT” really depends on the person. For the longest time, I associated diabetes with obesity. Then, I met someone who was not just fit, but was doing Ironmans. He wasn’t binging on oreos either but his blood results showed that he was pre-diabetic. Now, I’m learning that there are plenty of people who are thin outside but still diabetic.

    • Dian Xiao

      I think part of the reason for all the contradictory information is that everyone’s biochemistry is different.

      I think what’s becoming clear is that sugar is not “safe” due to what an excess of sugar does to your liver. Generally this refers to added sugar, but also things like agave syrup, honey, etc. Most fruit contain fiber so your blood sugar levels don’t go up super high, but an all fruit smoothie or juice might have too much sugar.

      I think the problem is that people think they are moderate with sugar but really aren’t. I have a friend who can consume tons of sugar, gain zero weight, have normal blood results. At the same time, I’ve met a type 2 diabetic who is severely insulin resistant, for him a piece of bacon is healthier than quinoa.

      I think it’s worth trying to cut back on carbs and sugar and see how you feel. I know for myself, after cutting out carbs during lunch, I wouldn’t crash when I had to go back to work.

  • Kate

    Juuuust in case there’s any science nerds out there, I’ma drop this gem… http://www.uctv.tv/shows/Sugar-The-Bitter-Truth-16717

  • Ashley Marie Perkins

    That photograph is my wet dream.

    • Ashley Marie Perkins

      To elaborate – I quit smoking (again) yesterday and I’m also off sugar as of today.

  • I can hardly go a few hours without sugar let alone an entire day. Also even fruit has sugar, but is fruit “bad” for you?

    • kitmcc

      I think of it like this: Fruit has natural sugars, your body knows how to process fruit. But it’s important to eat the whole fruit, not juice (this is too much sugar without the fiber for your body to use to process). Limit your tropical fruit though (mango, papaya, banana, pineapple), these do have higher sugar content.