Sugar, sugar... aw, honey, honey 🎶
September 16, 2015 10:05 AM   Subscribe

Really brief, dumb question about nutrition: How bad is sugar for you if you're not overweight/obese or diabetic?

I've been reading a lot about nutrition/diet/health lately as I'm trying to streamline my diet (having a very busy year) but don't want to autopilot on bad habits. I've done a few different diets-- Whole30 (very gluten free), vegetarian, South Beach-- and I'm not really committed to any particular philosophy of eating 100%. I am about 80% vegetarian, for cost and environmental reasons. I am very very slightly overweight or on the borderline, so I'm trying to drop a few pounds (ideally 10-15).

After a month of hardcore low carb eating, though, any amount vegetarian feels kind of inherently unhealthy to me, because I've internalized the idea that carbs = bad all the time and the healthiest diet is no carbs! Ever! While the low carb diet did make me feel pretty excellent, I don't want to eat animal proteins constantly (plus, maybe it's bad, who knows).

I'm trying to reintroduce the idea of a not-super-meaty diet back into my way of thinking. I've always avoided high carb and high sugar foods because there is some diabetes in my family and I've had the idea that too much sugar = type 2 diabetes. But the more I read about it, maybe that's not true? Maybe too much sugar = obesity = type 2 diabetes? Or, uh, what? I don't know that much about nutrition, but I do know people who say things like "sugar is like razor blades in your blood vessels!!" Which is scary and makes me not want to eat another Snickers bar again.

Right now I know my diet isn't optimal. A sample day would be like:

Breakfast: Noosa yogurt (high sugar, because contains fruit jam + honey)
Snack: Red Bull (I can't drink coffee or tea for GERD reasons)
LUNCH: Peanut butter or cottage cheese with wheat toast (+ maybe some veg if I had time to shop/prepare)
DINNER: Vegetable orzo soup, or a roasted vegetable with quinoa, or beans and quinoa with fresh veggies
SNACK: Grapes

This sounds like not enough food, but I generally count my calories to stay in a healthy weight loss range and will eat additional amounts of things (vegetables or nuts usually) to make sure I'm not starving. But my main concern is all the sugar and carbs... i.e., bread, the yogurt, that stupid Red Bull, fruit. How much do I need to dial it down to make myself healthy? Am I eating like shit or is this an improvement on the general diet (or both)? How much does this even matter? How can I improve my diet while not making unrealistic goals (i.e., let's do a lot of shopping or cooking, because yea I'm super busy)?

I know I'm probably not getting enough vegetables and vitamins but it's hardddd. Suggestions welcome in that area as well. But the main question is on sugar and how off-kilter my current diet is.
posted by easter queen to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I am not a nutritionist, I am not your nutritionist; I am not a doctor, I am not your doctor; I am not a dietitian, I am not your dietitian. This is not medical advice.

The answer to "how much sugar is too much" is - "it depends". Honestly, if you eat a moderate amount of everything, it usually all works out in the end; it's not like refined sugar is pure poison and if you eat a spoonful you're going to keel over and die. It's not, like cyanide or anything. Same goes for carbs, meat, grains, fruits, vegetables, etc. The people who say that sugar is like razor blades strike me as overreacting justa tad.

I'm not seeing anything really and obviously wrong with your diet from an "omigod stop doing that right now" standpoint, to be honest. The only thing I would suggest is to add some granola to the yogurt at breakfast, and maybe some carrot sticks or an apple or more grapes at lunch. Snacking on vegetables and nuts is also wise, and you're already doing that so yay. I'm also not seeing any obvious indicator that you're not eating enough vegetables, either; but if you are looking for more veggie-heavy suggestions, I'll recommend the cookbook I usually recommend in this instance, which is nothing but soups and salads; they're all veggie-heavy and keep well, and so you can make a couple big batches of things once in a while and just leave 'em in the fridge. Then for lunch, you can pick one of the soups and take a small container of it to work to have with the toast; or for dinner, you can have one of the soups and one of the salads on the side.

Pretty much the only thing I would speak to your doctor about is how the family risk of diabetes could be affected by your sugar intake; but I'm not seeing any obvious "holy shit that's bad" habits at first glance.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:34 AM on September 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am not a professional. I'm not even a pro. These are just some thoughts from what I've learned.

I don't think sugar is inherently bad for you. I think it is possible to be addicted to sugar. But on the flip side, many athletes "carb load" right before a big event because it's an easy way for their bodies to access energy. So depending on your lifestyle, you can certainly eat sugar.

However, if you're on limited number of calories, you will want to make sure you get all the nutrients you need (both micro and macro). This is when sugar often becomes "empty calories," because you need fat and protein and fiber and all the vitamins as well. (One example is that extreme dieters sometimes start having hair fall out, because they're not getting enough zinc. Some people do not get enough iron.) So in that sense, it's good to avoid sugar so that you spend more of your calories on more nutrient dense food.

If I were you, I would cut out Red Bull before I cut out bread. Especially since I find it mentally very difficult to diet with cravings. And if I don't have carbs, I will crave it like no tomorrow.
posted by ethidda at 10:35 AM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Most official recommendations will say to limit your intake of free sugars for optimum health (e.g. WHO suggests limiting free sugars to below 10% of total calories, or ideally below 5%), regardless of your current weight or health status. This means sweeteners, sugars in processed foods, beverages (including no-sugar-added juices and milk), etc. But it doesn't mean a spoonful of honey will kill you, it's about moderating the amount of sugars you eat, not eliminating them, so your current diet seems fine.

Limits on sugars from whole foods like fruit and vegetables are not included in those recommendations due to a lack of evidence showing that they're harmful. That doesn't necessarily mean they're not harmful, so I probably would avoid eating like 2 kg of grapes every day or something, but within reasonable limits, sugars from things like grapes are not something most people need to worry about.
posted by randomnity at 10:43 AM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The trouble with sugar is it’s been added to almost every processed food to make it more palatable, especially as the 'fat bad' scare made consumers seek low-fat alternatives to high-fat foods. The Lustig "sugar is poison!" thesis is really "fructose is really bad for you once you exceed your liver’s ability to process it": small amounts of sucrose / fructose are fine. Large amounts at ones? Bad.

My experience when I visited the US was that food had much more sugar added to it that food in Europe - everything was sweetened to a ridiculous degree to my palate.

Anyway, according to various nutrition data sources, you’re starting your day with:
1 Noosa Yoghurt: 28g sugar / serving
1 Red Bull:      26g sugar / serving
So you’re getting something like a third of your daily calories from pure sugar. That sounds excessive to me!
posted by pharm at 11:02 AM on September 16, 2015 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Good info already, thanks everyone. I'm going to try to tone it down, especially in the morning, by subbing plain Greek yogurt for the Noosa (should only be slightly less convenient...) and hopefully not drinking this stupid Red Bull anymore once I can find a low-sugar substitute for my caffeine addiction.
posted by easter queen at 11:08 AM on September 16, 2015

Also I didn't comment on the non-sugar carbs since there aren't as many evidence-based recommendations out there, but from what I've read, a similar "eat only in moderation" strategy makes sense for simple carbs like bread. They're not particularly healthy choices, and will definitely cause health problems if you eat them too often, but it's not like it's poison, you just don't want to overload your body's compensating mechanisms too much. What amount is "too much" is pretty ambiguous right now scientifically, but I wouldn't be worried at all about a single slice of bread per day if you aren't eating any other simple carbs in a day. For myself, I usually try not to eat simple carbs at more than one meal a day, or in vast quantities at one meal, for what that's worth.

So labels and make sure your diet doesn't have a disproportionate amount of calories coming from free sugars or simple carbs in it (remember to include seemingly-innocent stuff like canned soup, yogurt, peanut butter etc as well as the obvious culprits like red bull). I said earlier that your diet seems fine but I shouldn't have, since I can't really comment on that without you adding up those numbers.
posted by randomnity at 11:09 AM on September 16, 2015

This may be a useful resource for you - /r/vegetarianketo/. Check out the sidebar for links.
posted by pyro979 at 11:10 AM on September 16, 2015

Best answer: I found this article on sugar to be enlightening:
posted by aniola at 11:13 AM on September 16, 2015

If you're not getting enough multivitamins from your diet, consider taking a multivitamin as a supplement.
posted by aniola at 11:15 AM on September 16, 2015

Red Bull makes a zero carb version.
posted by disconnect at 12:24 PM on September 16, 2015

As far as the sugar/carbs --> diabetes connection, if you're interested you could consider actually testing what various foods do to your blood sugar... you can buy a cheap blood sugar meter (like the CVS TrueResult system, comes with 10 test strips; you can get more strips on Amazon) and actually see how your blood sugar reacts to various foods (i.e. how much higher your blood sugar is an hour or two after meals versus before them.) Some people don't spike much at all no matter what they eat, and are probably less likely to develop diabetes (although it doesn't hurt to check back every few years)-- see here re: what is "normal". Other people who are potentially on the pathway to diabetes will be somewhat reactive (though well short of diabetic levels) and it may make sense to minimize the specific foods that spike you, to keep your blood sugar control from worsening over time.

I fall in the latter category (I have a family history too, which is why I wanted to look into this in the first place), and having a blood sugar monitor and testing occasionally has actually been really helpful for me in getting concrete about what kinds of foods I should minimize and which I don't need to worry about... some sugary/carby things actually don't change my blood sugar much at all so I don't worry much about them, whereas other things I'm surprisingly reactive to and either cut out of my diet if I don't care about them or try to cut back on portion size/frequency if they're things I love (blood sugar testing helps me figure out the right portion sizes too! my personal goal is to keep my blood sugar levels under 140 one hour after eating, so I shrink portions as necessary to get there.)

Some people think this approach is really interesting and others think it's crazy/stressful... it's definitely not a necessary thing to do to feel like you're taking good care of your health, so please take or leave it. Just wanted to toss it out there in case being able to narrow in more on "eating X carby/sugary thing is really bad for me, eating Y carby/sugary thing is more or less fine" sounds attractive to you!
posted by EmilyClimbs at 12:42 PM on September 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: All I know is, when I cut sugar from my diet, the weight drops off. But I'm definitely in the Lustig camp. I would replace that yogurt with plain Greek yogurt with fruit, drop the Red Bull, and sub natural peanut butter for the regular stuff.

And grapes are actually just bags of sugar (very little fiber)--I wouldn't eat them. What makes the sugar in fruit okay is that a) you're getting other nutrients along with the sugar and b) the fiber slows its digestion.
posted by Automocar at 1:14 PM on September 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've been on slow-carb for over 2 years and the thought of having sugar on a regular (daily) basis is terrifying. If you're not eating sugar, will you eat artificial sweeteners? I'm really trying to get rid of artificial sweeteners as I finally approach goal.
posted by getawaysticks at 6:17 PM on September 16, 2015

Re: Red Bull substitute:

Yerba Mate. Particularly, Yerba Mate brewed cold, with lemon juice (maybe something else for your GERD?) and a wee squirt of agave. Yeah, that's sugar, but waaaaaay less that red bull. And for me it doesn't have the acid/crash effect of coffee (YMMV)

Also, one of the ladies who works in my building invented this stuff. It's great. High caff, low cal/sugar. Dunno if it's buyable anywhere other than where I live, but figured I'd mention it just in case.
posted by sazerac at 8:03 PM on September 16, 2015

Response by poster: That seems like a good idea! I've thought of mate (used to drink a chocolate mate tea when I was on a caffeine detox, only to discover it has hella caffeine... don't know where that confusion came from), but also heard that consuming a lot of it is linked to cancer? I don't know, I guess everything is linked to cancer.
posted by easter queen at 8:41 AM on September 17, 2015

Best answer: Related: "If I don't gain weight, is it okay to eat sugar?"
posted by getawaysticks at 10:35 AM on September 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

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