Halloween is all about spooky fun, costumes and candy. Most of my clients enjoy everything about Halloween except the candy part. Candy brings up feelings of ambivalence, worry, and even dread. Which makes sense because sugar is currently our most demonized nutrient. I’m going to shed some light on the (real) truth about sugar so that you can eat candy on Halloween (and thereafter) in peace.
Basics first. Sugar is the generic name for sweet-tasting, soluble, digestible carbohydrates. All carbohydrates (sugars and starches) are converted by the body to glucose, the body's main energy source. Our organs, the brain included, rely primarily on glucose to function. When we eat low carb diets, our bodies make ketones, a short-term glucose substitute. Ketones aren't as reliable as glucose and they stress-out the body, which, among other reasons, makes low-carb diets generally a bad idea. We’ve been eating sugar for a really long time (2500 years). The stuff in table sugar is mostly sucrose, which is a disaccharide (meaning, 2 parts) comprised of glucose and fructose. When we eat sugar, the body secretes enzymes that break apart the 2-part disaccharide to free up glucose and fructose for absorption and use in the body. This happens when we eat complex carbs too. Sugars are found in plant sources (mostly). It's most concentrated in sugar cane. Have you ever chewed on sugar cane? Highly recommend.
There is nothing inherently wrong with sugar. Because sugar is more quickly available for absorption in the body compared to complex carbohydrates (like, quinoa or lentils), some people feel better having sweets with or following a mixed nutrient meal or snack (i.e., protein or fat is included in the meal or snack). But not everybody is like this. Some people can eat a candy bar for an afternoon snack and feel awesome - everyone is different.
So why is there so much negative hype around sugar?
If you look closely at the research data (not by doing a google search), nothing about the effects of sugar on the body is conclusive. The hysteria about sugar is really about the issue of displacement from a broad public health perspective. Are sugary foods displacing other nutrient dense foods in your diet causing deficiencies? Sugar lacks vitamins, minerals, protein, fat (although some candy has this) and fiber. The widespread concern is that people eat too much sugar and then don’t get enough of these other nutrients. But the truth is, when you practice intuitive eating and all foods are neutral (no food is bad nor forbidden), sugary foods are generally consumed in a way that leaves plenty of room for all the other nutrients your body needs to be healthy. The problem we should be talking about is NOT whether or not sugar is evil, but rather, when and why did we stop paying attention to our body cues?
Global average sugar intake shows that the United States is in first place for sugar consumption. But what this data really reveals is that Americans are out-of-sync, un-intuitive eaters. We are entrenched in diet culture, have fear of sugar, and eat sweets compulsively or binge-like when the opportunity allows. That’s why so many of my clients say that they can’t bring candy into the house – “I’ll eat the whole stash”. Read more about sugar addiction here.
The messages disseminated in pop medicine and public health are un-nuanced, over-simplified, and rife with false claims. Our cultural definitions of “healthy eating” focuses almost entirely on choosing food based on nutritional profile. The complexity and psychology of eating behavior is totally missed. And, ultimately, instilling sugar fear profits the myriad of diets and lifestyles, their advertisers and affiliates. Again, dieting promotes the (eventual) over-consumption of sugar and other foods. Food hasn't changed all that much over the years. Soda, cakes, cookies, ice cream, candy, has been around a long time. What has changed is the diet industry, which is at this moment in history, completely out of control. Every food imaginable is forbidden depending on the diet or lifestyle. The truth is, all foods fit. Eating healthfully is a result of intuitive behaviors: choosing food you like, interoceptive awareness (listening to your internal sensory cues for hunger and fullness), self-care, emotional regulation, and gentle movement.
I eat sugar. I add sugar (white, granulated) to my morning coffee. I eat ice cream and baked goods probably daily. We always keep a good selection of chocolate in the office pantry. I love Kool-Aid (probably the first dietitian in America to openly admit this, but I feel no food shame). Candy fits. Candy consumption fits in a healthy diet. I hope you can eat some peacefully this Halloween.