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Sugar. One word, yet it elicits a wide range of complex emotions. Joy. Celebration. Pleasure. Defeat. Guilt. Shame. Which emotions do you associate with sugar? How is it that this one word has the power to grip us?

Historical context

Sugar has a complicated history. Our body wants to survive; craving high sugar, high fat foods. Being able to store these Calories as energy was advantageous when food was scarce. The naturally occurring sugars in fruit, grains, dairy, and some vegetables have been a part of the human diet for a long time. However, did you know that we have been growing sugar cane for approximately 8,000 years¹? In other words, humans consuming sugar (including sucrose = table sugar) is part of ancient history. Not only do we enjoy its sweet taste, but sugar has held important medicinal and religious significance in many cultures¹. Sugar production was labour-intensive causing it to be expensive and treated as a luxurious spice. Over time, the allure of sugar became a key driver of global exploration, conquest, deforestation, wealth, and establishment of powerful cities¹. Talk about an unbridled power to grip us!

As technology advanced, it became more feasible to mass-produce sugar and provide it to consumers and the food industry at a lower price. As the demand for ready-to-eat foods rose, sugar became a common ingredient to increase the palatability of processed foods¹. Though fruit, dairy products and some vegetables naturally containing sugar, the “other foods” category (i.e. soft drinks, candy, desserts, sauces and condiments) account for 35% of Canadian’s sugar intake². What is the significance of this?

Why the infamous reputation?

The main concern is the amount of sugar we eat. Diets high in added sugar are associated with a high Calorie, low quality diets, which can increase risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease³. However, the extent that sugar alone contributes to these conditions is difficult to determine as there are complex conditions with multiple contributing factors at individual and environmental levels ⁴,⁵.

We often get caught up demonizing one nutrient and promoting others to super-hero status, forgetting about the big picture and that people:

a) live complex lives

b) make decisions not only based on knowledge but on emotions, finances, culture, etc

c) eat FOOD not individual nutrients

I like to view food as an entire ecosystem of nutrients that interact in incredible ways.

How to cope with sugar?

You can eat foods that contain sugar (did I just say that?!), both naturally occurring as in fruit, dairy, or grains, but also added sugars like your birthday cake and pumpkin pie³. The caveat is that I want to challenge you to think about 2 big-picture things: 1) Focus on enjoying a variety of fresh, whole foods daily. Eat delicious fruit, try new vegetables, and make a meal at home with your kids. Keep these delicious foods on hand (i.e. stocked fridge) so that they are convenient. 2) When you do eat foods with added sugar, do it in a way that you can ENJOY them. Try to be mindful to not eat these foods on auto pilot while running about your day. Rather, be with friends, be celebrating, save it for your favourite treat. Try sharing a dessert with your friend, taking a smaller portion, and eat it slowly while sipping tea so it lasts longer. Focus on the joy and pleasure of the moment to stave off the guilt, shame and defeat. Look who has the power now! This post was extremely difficult for me to write because there is so much that I could say on this sweet topic. Hopefully this gives you some food for thought as you make your 227 decisions about food today⁶!

References: 1. Smith. A.F. (2015). Sugar: A global history. London: Reaktion Books Ltd. 2. Langlois, K,. & Garriguet, D. (2015). Sugar consumption among Canadians of all ages. Retrieved from: 3. Fitch, C., & Keim, K.S. (2012). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Use of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 112(5), 739-758. 4. Ruxton, C.H., Gardner, E.J., & McNulty, H.M. (2009). Is sugar consumption detrimental to health? A review fo the evidence 1995-2006. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 50(1), 1-19. 5. Erickson, J., & Slavin, J. (2015). Are restrictive guidelines for added sugars science based? Nutrition Journal, 14, 124. 6. Wansink, B. & Sobal, J. (2007). Mindless eating: The 200 daily food decisions we overlook. Environment and Behaviour, 39(1), 106-123.

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