Why Freaking Out About Sugar Won't Help Your Health

Obesity is on the increase. And so are the numbers of theories all blaming different offenders. Culprit of the month is sugar, with researchers arguing that high levels of sugar in fizzy drinks, sweets and processed foods not only cause aggression and behavioural problems in children but also diabetes, obesity and hidden fat – even in those who look thin.

Sugar picture from Shutterstock

Sugar is a drug, we are told, and like any drug can create an addiction that causes tolerance and withdrawal leaving us wanting to consume more. Sugar is the “big kahuna” of the lies promulgated by the food industry, the evil factor responsible for society’s biggest problem and counter moves include policies such as limiting its intake through banning supersized fizzy drinks as proposed in New York and bans on unhealthy vending machines in schools.

But is the “war on sugar” really the magic solution we have all been waiting for?

Before sugar, we had the evils of carbohydrates as exemplified by the Atkins diet, which encouraged us to eat high protein diets. Carbohydrates, we were told, were just disguised sugars and if we could only be without we would all be thin.

Then there was research showing us that television and computer games were the key causes of obesity, particularly in children. Screen time is dangerous and should be limited to two hours a day to prevent children from becoming fat.

And we have also had the biological theories: the “hunger hormone” grehlin was hailed as a great breakthrough for several years and there has been the never ending search for the obesity gene. Researchers have found genes in rats which make them obese and leptin levels in children linked to weight gain.

And let’s not forget the oldest culprit so far in this attempt to solve the obesity puzzle: fat. For many decades now, a low-fat diet has been prescribed as the key to weight maintenance and weight loss which has been the basis for the now iconic “healthy plate”, which illustrates what we should eat and in what proportions, and is core to the regimes of most commercial weight loss programmes.

Nothing new to this holy grail

Even in the 1800s there were many solutions to obesity including Dr Schindler Barnay’s Marienbad Reducing (Anti-Fat) Pills and Lord Byron’s choice diet of potatoes flattened and drenched in vinegar.

Back then the search was also on for the “single” explanation that could fix the population’s waistlines and with each solution presented as the “real” answer that superseded all others.

But is there is a single answer to this complex and multifactorial problem? Is obesity really caused by sugar or screen time or genes or fat? Or is the answer simply: all of the above?

We can’t just be addicted to sugar as no one gets the sugar out of the cupboard to eat on its own. We don’t say we’re addicted to fat when it comes in the form of chips and curry. And genes alone can’t explain it as people gain weight when they move countries even when their genes stay the same.

Many researchers want to find a single solution to this problem as this brings acclaim, glory, citations and the understandable satisfaction of having solved a problem. And researchers also tend to belong to specific disciplines, whether it’s nutrition, genetics, psychology or biochemistry, and need to believe that their discipline has the true explanation. And “all of the above” isn’t going to do anything for anyone.

But maybe “all of the above” is as good as it’s going to get – and actually the way we should be going. Obesity is simple: overeating and under-activity, probably helped by a dose of obesity-prone genes. But a simple explanation is not a single explanation, and while trying pin down a single culprit may help academic careers, it does nothing for solving this recalcitrant problem.

Jane Ogden is Professor of Health Psychology at University of Surrey. She does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


    Oh my god THANK YOU. I agree wholeheartedly with this. Why is obesity suddenly a passive thing? It used to be if you were fat it was your own fault. Now you can blame genes, addiction, food companies, computer games, pretty much anything.

    Obesity is complex for a small amount of people, but for many it's very simple. Too much in and not enough out.

      Its not as simple as too much in and not enough out. What happens when you reduce your intake is the body thinks it is being starved and then takes steps to preserve itself - it stores as much fat as possible and reduces its metabolism to slow the burn of energy. Fructose disrupts the body's appetite control and is stored as fat by the liver. Once you take the added fructose out of your diet yo regain appetite control and your food consumption reduces according to your bodies real needs.

        It takes a lot for your body to hit starvation mode, reducing your calories by 500 or even 1000 cals WILL NOT cause this to happen.

      Whilst in essence, you're correct - too much in and not enough out, as the article suggested, there is more to it than that.
      We typically eat 2-3 meal a day, based on a tradition stretching back several hundred years, where eating 3 meals was necessity, yet we still eat like we are tilling the fields and building castles.

      Nowadays, you can get an entire days worth of energy requirements in just one meal due to the extra ingredients added into them - sugar being the most prevalent.
      So, do we suggest that everyone now just eats one meal a day, in line with their energy output ?
      Probably not, but maybe looking at alternatives to having sugar in everything is a good start.

      Alternatives such as Stevia which has been used in Japan for decades, and more recently in the US and Europe.

      I'm not saying that food additives are the only problem, but we live in a work obsessed culture, and telling the poor slob who works 10+ hours at the office, that he should be spending more time on himself doing exercise, when he's busting his gut for his family, is likely to fall on deaf ears.

      Now, offices, there's a toxic environment..

        Been using Stevia for nearly a year now myself. Although I do add just a bit of sugar to help mask the aftertaste. I have a fast metabolism, so basically I don't have to do as much now to keep the paunch manageable. It is rather exy still though... :)

    You cannot compare the issue of sugar in today's food with the things we used to worry about..! When they stopped putting so much fat in processed foods because they thought that was 'the' cause for obesity, and it is a problem, they started putting sugar in our processed foods to stop it from tasting like "shit"..! Sugar is now in everything, even foods that you wouldn't think it was in, and the amount of sugar has been increasing in order to keep us coming back. Let's not forget salt either, way too much of that too! You can't really blame processed food manufacturers either. When they were told there was too much fat, they reduced it, then they realised it tasted like cardboard, so they added sugar, which was in hind sight worse than fat. The problem now is getting the sugar out and finding a way to make food taste good in a Heuristic way. They better do it fast though, because predictions are that this current generation will live shorter lives than the previous one if they don't...!

      To be clear, there was less sugar and salt in most foods in "the old days" simply because it was expensive and in the case of sugar, unneccesary (when you can barely feed your family), and in the case of salt, required for preserving things.. It's not because they were on some health kick.

      I think it's pretty obvious to everyone that what you say is true because the government has invested millions in education on it.. I sure as hell was educated far more than was actually required on this..

      In the end, I don't think 'food being awesome' is really a problem.. Just control your intake like the mature adults we are.

        To be clear, there was less sugar and salt in most foods in "the old days"Yes that's true, but there was more fat, which is a problem in processed food. They just didn't understand how it all worked together. The last fads on how to lose weight were just silly kneejerk reactions to the hyperbole spouted by so called experts. There needs to be more study done on how sugar affects us, but Sugar is the major problem and processed foods need to be modified. Maybe a little bit of fat and a little bit of sugar and a little bit of salt in balance will do the job...

      I think the biggest problem is that we live in a lazy world. We take shortcuts in the form of pre-packaged, pre-cooked, unhealthily long shelf life "foods". Things that we are told will simply take the work out of cooking and give us more time to . Demand drives supply of shitty, chemically enhanced, would-probably-survive-Fukushima, packaged "foods".

      It has been known for a long time that carbohydrates are not good in the quantities we're so used to consuming. Yet somehow they remain the most highly consumed food group. Combine that with the amount of sugar we consume and it's bound to get worse. Misinformation and false advertising drive it home with "low-fat" "fat-free" "sugar-free" as the new buzzwords.. Not to mention artificial sweeteners..

        Carbohydrates are not bad in any given quantity it all depends on how much of them you are using. Glucose is the main fuel source for the brain and the muscles. If you use that fuel then you have no problems (ask any athlete about what they have immediately pre and post exercise: good bet it contains a decent amount of glucose). BUT if you don't use it then it is stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen which means it gets put into long term storage. And since you're not using those muscles, that glycogen keeps piling up.

        "It has been known for a long time that carbohydrates are not good in the quantities we're so used to consuming. "
        What do you suggest should be the most highly consumed food group?
        From my recollections of Biochemistry, Carbohydrate should be our primary energy source (and subsequently, at the top of our daily intake requirement). We can generate energy from Protein, but it's a backup mechanism for situations where we're starving, not the preferred option.

          in the quantities we're so used to consuming

          Carbohydrates turn to fat when not burned as energy. In the quantities we consume, this is like carb-loading every day.

          What do you suggest should be the most highly consumed food group?


          Before changing my diet, I was eating a "healthy" amount of carbohydrates (rice, bread, pasta, the occasional sweets, beer). I train 3 times a week (CrossFit) and have done so for over a year. As mentioned in a post below, I had love handles I wanted to get rid of, but on the "normal" diet I was eating, this did not happen. I significantly reduced my carbohydrate intake, including sugar, and feel better for it.


        Sure you can say we're lazy, and for the most part that may be true, but Manufacturers are the one's who need to make it their 'duty of care' to make food healthy not just follow the fads and trends.

    I have cut out all sugar in my diet and i have lost 14kg since Feb.
    I have not modified any of my other habbits, same job, same exercise levels, infact i am adding more fatty food into my diet to make up for the sugar.
    It may not be the only thing causing fatter people, but i think it is one of the main things.

      Proof of nothing that you either had wayyyyy too much sugar vs anything else previously, or live far too sendary a lifestyle (since sugar is burned very easily once fairly immediately consumed)

      I have a fair amount of sugar, and make no effort to cut anything out - I just try to eat a generally balanced diet with a reasonable amount of sugar for my exercise levels.. Seems to work ok..

        I also stopped sugar and lost 20kg in one year, and to prove that it was not due to exercise made a deliberate did not change my lack of exercise routine. Not everyone is affected to the same extent by the sugar but for those of us who are there is an amazing change to be had by removing sugar from our diets. You can see before and after photos from my website www.nzsugarfree.co.nz. Note you can be skinny in appearance but still have fat around your inner organs which is the dangerous fat. Look at a youtube video of "the men who made us fat"

        I was only a little overweight (80kg), i did not have a huge suger intake perhaps a 4 or so softdrinks a week, desert a couple of times a week, fast food once perhaps twice a week. nothing compared to some people i know.
        I have a bad back and i needed to loose the weight to stop the stress on my back.
        I would recommend cutting out all suger to anyone trying to loose weight.

        Likewise, your example is proof of nothing.
        By not cutting out sugar, you don't know what/if any difference it would make to your lifestyle, yet you purport this to be the 'truth'. Furthermore, you deride someone that actually has made the effort.

        Simply saying "I don't do X, so I must be right", without any corresponding data is akin to a school yard argument.

      Agreed. My fiancee and I have been on a paleo diet for about 6 weeks and, while I'm nowhere near overweight (5'10"/73kg), I had love handles I wanted to lose. Same exercise, same habits.

      By cutting out sugar and carbohydrates, I've found my energy levels have been through the roof, I don't get sugar cravings in the early afternoon to try to get me through the rest of the day and I don't feel as hungry. The love handles have also reduced noticeably.

    @Raman Shaw -- I assume you mean refined sugars or sugars not naturally occurring in whole foods because glucose is what powers your brain...carbs ain't all bad

    Last edited 27/08/13 9:45 am

      No, no, no, no, no!
      Refined sugars/Natural sugars they're all the same to the body!

      Sugar (sucrose) is a Glucose and Fructose molecule "glued" together. In your body that link is broken and the Fructose is converted into Glucose and follows the same pathways to be converted into energy or fat depending on the body's needs.
      Starch (carbohydrate), similarly is a whole bunch of Glucose molecules all linked together. Similarly, your body processes the starch into Glucose and it all ends up in the same processes.
      The same can be said for any Complex Sugar or Carbohydrate. Your body will process it into Glucose and then use it from there.

      Put simply, it's the quantity that matters (balanced with your energy output). Your body couldn't care less about whether it has been refined or not!

        Unless it has been chemically refined, in which case there is more going in than just the sugar/starch. i.e bleached plain flour vs. unbleached,

        Sorry dude (stevothedevo) but that is incorrect. The body processes Fructose differently than it does Glucose. Main ones being that it does not affect your appetite processes, so you can eat more and it creates subcutaneous fat deposits rather than surface ones (like glucose)
        Watch the catalyst link and find out some more on these areas.

    I think I would rather be fat than live in a world totally devoid of sugar....

    Cut down a little sure

    but no sugar??


    There was a really good episode of Catalyst on ABC that explains the problems with sugar. Definitely worth checking out: http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/3821440.htm

    Just cut out any drink that isn't water. Seriously, that'll be enough. I am fit (can run 5-10km no problem) work out 4 times a week and play sport 3 times a week and I still lost weight when I cut out all of those drinks.

    It's ridiculous.

    Last edited 27/08/13 9:21 pm

    Eugh, Stevia. Maybe it's just me, but I find that stuff sickly and disgusting. Even when people say 'use half as much Stevia as sugar' I still find it overpowering. Maybe use a tenth as much? I'd probably still hate it.

    Better alternative? Just learn to not eat so much sugar. A lot of the stuff it's hidden in can be made at home (alright, alright, tomato sauce is kind of a pain in the ass to make yourself - or you could just not have it) or you can buy much healthier alternatives. Whole foods are a lot more than a niche market nowadays - it's really not hard to find healthier foods that don't have all that hidden sugar, salt and fat.

    With that being said...the sad reality for many is that cooking their own healthy food is just not an option. You know you're living in a screwed-up society when fatty, sugary instant meals are cheaper than vegetables and meat to make your own - and when people's income is just not high enough to allow them to eat properly in the first place (or they're trapped somewhere where the food prices are so high as to make fresh food unaffordable, or it's just not available to them - 'food deserts', which are becoming terrifyingly common in many countries). And it's not just places like the UK and America - it's happening in Australia too. While the majority of those who do have health problems as a result of high-sugar, high-salt or high-fat diets* don't have any excuses, it's those who can't afford to eat well that are the most likely to suffer, least likely to be able to afford medical assistance, and most likely to end up dying as a result. And given how wealthy we are as a society there's really no reason for it. (Hell, given how much food we produce there's no reason for it. I can't see why bumper crops of vegetables and fruit are left to rot in paddocks or fed to sheep and cattle when they could just as easily be handed out to the poor for free. At least then it's being eaten.)

    *: and you don't need to be overweight for that to happen. Two people I knew in high school who had diabetes were skinny as - but they ate a lot of sugary snacks and drank a lot of soft drink. They didn't get fat, but that didn't stop all that sugar from making them sick anyway. A high-salt diet may not make you fat, but it'll still screw your heart up. Hell, even if you don't gain weight on a high-fat diet it doesn't mean that the fat isn't still doing damage to your arteries and digestive system.

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