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    Why you shouldn't trust your food cravings

    August 30, 2019

    Many of us believe that a food craving is our body’s way of signalling that it needs a certain nutrient. But research shows that’s unlikely to be true – with one possible exception.

    By Jessica Brown

    When we’re hungry, just about any food will do, but a craving can leave us fixated on a particular food until we get our hands, or indeed mouths, on it.Most of us know what it feels like to experience food cravings. We usually crave higher calorie foods, which is why cravings are associated with weight gain and increased body mass index (BMI). But the story we tell ourselves about where these cravings come from could determine how easily we give into them.It’s widely believed that cravings are our body’s way of signalling to us that we’re deficient in a certain nutrient – and for pregnant women, their cravings signal what their baby needs. But is this really true?

    Much of the research into cravings has instead found that there are probably several causes for cravings – and they’re mostly psychological.

    Cultural conditioning

    In the early 1900s, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov realised that dogs anticipated food in response to certain stimuli associated with feeding time. In a series of well-known experiments, Pavlov taught the dogs to respond to the sound of a bell by drooling.

    Food cravings largely can be explained by this conditioning response, says John Apolzan, assistant professor of clinical nutrition and metabolism at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

    “If you always eat popcorn when you watch your favourite TV show, your cravings will for popcorn will increase when you watch it,” he says.

    The 15:00 slump is another example of this response in practice. If you crave something sweet in the middle of the afternoon, there’s a chance this craving is stronger when you’re at work, says Anna Konova, director of the Addiction and Decision Neuroscience Laboratory at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

    That is because cravings arise from particular external cues, rather than our body calling out for something.

    Chocolate is one of the most common food cravings in the West – which supports the argument that cravings don’t stem from nutritional deficiencies, since chocolate doesn’t really contain high levels of anything we could be deficient in.

    It’s often argued that chocolate is such a common craving because it has high amounts of phenylethylamine, a molecule that triggers the brain to release feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin. But many other foods we don’t crave nearly as often, including dairy products, contain higher concentrations of this molecule. Also, when we eat chocolate, an enzyme breaks the phenylethylamine down, so it doesn’t go into the brain in significant quantities.

    Chocolate, which is craved twice as much among women than men, has been found to be the most craved food in the West by women before and during menstruation. But while blood loss can increase the risk of some nutritional deficiencies, such as iron, scientists say chocolate wouldn’t restore iron levels anywhere near as quickly as red meat or dark, leafy greens.

    One would assume that, if there was any direct hormonal effect causing a biological need for chocolate during or before menstruation, this craving would alleviate after the menopause. But one study only found a small decrease in the prevalence of chocolate cravings in post-menopausal women.

    It’s much more likely that the association between PMS and chocolate cravings is cultural, due to its prevalence in Western society. One study found that women born outside the US were significantly less likely to link chocolate cravings to the menstrual cycle, and experienced fewer chocolate cravings, compared to those born in the US and to second-generation immigrants.

    Women might associate chocolate with menstruation, researchers have argued, because during and before their periods is the only time they feel it’s culturally acceptable for them to eat “taboo” foods. This, they say, is because Western culture has a “thin ideal” of female beauty that creates the perception that craving chocolate must be justified with a good excuse.

    Another paper argues that food cravings are caused by the ambivalence or tension between desiring a food and wanting to control food intake. It’s assumed, the paper states, that women in particular resolve this by not having the food in question – which increases their chance of craving it as they’re more likely to notice cues.

    This can be problematic, Hill says, because cravings are fuelled by negative feelings.

    “If eating a craved food follows a craving, then those restricting what they eat to lose weight will feel they've broken a dietary rule and feel bad about themselves,” he says.

    “We know from studies and clinical observations that negative mood can trigger more eating and, for some, become an eating binge. This pattern has little to do with a biological need for food or physiological hunger. Rather, it's the rules we set regarding eating and the consequences of their transgression.”

    Only two-thirds of languages have a word for cravings

    Research also indicates that, while chocolate cravings are prevalent in the West, they’re not common at all in many Eastern countries. There are also differences in how urges for different foods are communicated and understood; only two-thirds of languages have a word for cravings, and in most cases, this word only relates to drugs, and not food.

    “When you can articulate that a craving exists, you can identify and define it, which means you can experience it,” says Nicole Avena, assistant professor of neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

    “Having a definition means cravings are real, whereas if cravings aren’t well defined or ingrained in a culture, people won’t automatically assume cravings are happening to them – they’re more elusive.”

    Even in languages that do contain a word for craving, there is still is a lack of consensus around what a craving actually is. This, Konova argues, is a barrier to understanding how to overcome cravings, since we may be labelling several different processes as cravings.

    Microbe manipulation

    There is evidence suggesting that the trillions of bacteria in our guts can manipulate us to crave, and eat, what they need – which isn’t always what our body needs.

    This is because microbes are looking out for their own interests, says Athena Aktipis, assistant professor at Arizona State University’s department of psychology. And they’re good at doing this.

    “The gut microbes that are best at surviving inside us end up being more frequent in the next generation. They have the evolutionary advantage of being better at affecting us in ways that get us to preferentially feed them,” she says. (Find out more about how microbes affect our bodies in our recent BBC Future series Microbes and Me).

    Different microbes in our guts prefer different environments, such as more or less acidic, and what we eat affects the ecosystem in our guts and what’s available for the bacteria to survive on. They can manipulate us into eating what they need in a few different ways.

    They can send signals from the gut to the brain via our vagus nerve and make us feel under the weather if we’re not eating enough of a certain nutrient, or make us feel good when we eat what they want, by releasing neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. They can also alter our taste receptors so we consume more of something to get the same taste of sweetness, for example.

    No one has observed this happening yet, Aktipis says, but it’s based on scientists’ understanding of how microbes behave.

    But, she adds, these microbes aren’t always necessarily signalling for us to eat things that are good for us. After all, some bacteria cause disease and death.

    “There’s a notion that the microbiome is part of us, but if you have an infectious disease making you feel sick, you would say that microbe is invading your body, not that it’s part of your body,” she says. “You could be getting hijacked by an impaired microbiome.”

    But if you eat a diet with lots of complex carbohydrates and fibre, you will cultivate a more diverse microbiome, Aktipis says. This probably means that a healthy diet, which leads to a healthy microbiome, means you crave healthy food.

    Cut your craving

    Since our environment is full of cues that could tap into our cravings, such as advertising and photos on social media, overcoming them isn’t so straightforward.

    “Everywhere we go, we see adverts for food with lots of added sugar, and it’s easy to access these foods. This continual bombardment of advertising affects the brain – and smelling these foods primes the brain to want to eat them,” says Avena.

    Since there’s no realistic way to reduce the stimulus of something like chocolate in an environment where we’re surrounded by it, researchers are studying how we can overcome the conditional model of cravings using cognitive strategies instead.

    A number of studies have found that mindfulness techniques, such as being aware of cravings and not judging these thoughts, can help reduce cravings overall.

    One of the most effective ways to curb cravings is to cut the craved food from our diet

    Research has found that one of the most effective ways to curb cravings is to cut the craved food from our diet – which runs counter to the argument that we crave what we need.

    In one study, researchers carried out a two-year trial where they randomised more than 300 subjects to one of four diets with different levels of fat, protein and carbohydrates, and measured their cravings and food intake. All the groups lost weight, but when they ate less of a certain food they craved it less.

    The researchers say their findings show that, in order to reduce cravings, people should eat the food they crave less often – possibly because our memories associated with that food fade over time.

    It’s largely agreed that more work needs to be done into defining and understanding cravings, and developing ways we can overcome the conditional response we develop for unhealthy food. In the meantime, there are several mechanisms suggesting that the healthier our diet, the healthier our cravings.

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    People who made breakfast the biggest meal were more likely to have a lower BMI
    Food Fictions Nutrition
    Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?
    We’ve all heard that healthier, fitter people don’t skip breakfast. But does that mean breakfast makes us healthier and thinner – or is it something else?

    By Jessica Brown
    28 November 2018
    Along with old classics like ‘carrots give you night vision’ and ‘Santa doesn’t bring toys to misbehaving children’, one of the most well-worn phrases in the arsenal of tired parents everywhere is that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Many of us grow up believing that skipping breakfast is a dietary travesty – even if only two thirds of adults in the UK eat breakfast regularly, according to the Association of UK Dieticians (BDA), and around three-quarters of Americans.

    The clue for why breakfast is supposed to be important is in its name: we’re advised to eat it to break our overnight fast.

    “The body uses a lot of energy stores for growth and repair through the night,” explains dietician Sarah Elder. “Eating a balanced breakfast helps to up our energy, as well as protein and calcium used throughout the night.”


    But there’s widespread disagreement over whether breakfast should keep its top spot in the hierarchy of meals. As well as the rising popularity of fasting diets, there have been concerns around the sugar content of cereal and the food industry’s involvement in pro-breakfast research – and even one claim from an academic that breakfast is “dangerous”.

    So what’s the reality? Is breakfast a necessary start to the day… or a marketing ploy by cereal companies?

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    Weighty decision

    The most researched aspect of breakfast (and breakfast-skipping) has been its links to obesity. Scientists have different theories as to why there’s a relationship between the two.

    In one US study that analysed the health data of 50,000 people over seven years, researchers found that those who made breakfast the largest meal of the day were more likely to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who ate a large lunch or dinner. The researchers argued that breakfast helps increase satiety, reduce daily calorie intake, improve the quality of our diet – since breakfast foods are often higher in fibre and nutrients – and improve insulin sensitivity at subsequent meals, which can be a risk for diabetes.

    But as with any study of this kind, it was unclear if that was the cause – or if breakfast-skippers were just more likely to be overweight to begin with.

    To find out, researchers designed a study in which 52 obese women took part in a 12-week weight loss programme. All had the same number of calories over the day, but half had breakfast, while the other half did not.

    What they found was that it wasn’t breakfast itself that caused the participants to lose weight: it was changing their normal routine. The women who said before the study that they usually ate breakfast lost 8.9kg when they stopped having breakfast, compared to 6.2kg in the breakfast group. Meanwhile, those who usually skipped breakfast lost 7.7kg when they started eating it – and 6kg when they continued to skip it.

    If breakfast alone isn’t a guarantee of weight loss, why is there a link between obesity and skipping breakfast?

    Alexandra Johnstone, professor of appetite research at the University of Aberdeen, argues that it may simply be because breakfast-skippers have been found to be less knowledgeable about nutrition and health.

    “There are a lot of studies on the relationship between breakfast eating and possible health outcomes, but this may be because those who eat breakfast choose to habitually have health-enhancing behaviours such as not smoking and regular exercise,” she says.

    One review found 'limited evidence' either for or against the argument that breakfast influences weight

    A 2016 review of 10 studies looking into the relationship between breakfast and weight management concluded there is “limited evidence” supporting or refuting the argument that breakfast influences weight or food intake, and more evidence is required before breakfast recommendations can be used to help prevent obesity.

    Feast or fast?

    Intermittent fasting, which involves fasting overnight and into the next day, is gaining ground among those looking to lose or maintain their weight or improve their health.

    One pilot study published in 2018, for example, found that intermittent fasting improves blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity and lowers blood pressure. Eight men with pre-diabetes were assigned one of two eating schedules: either eating all their calories between 9:00 and 15:00, or eating the same number of calories over 12 hours. The results for the 9:00-15:00 group were found to be on par with medicine that lowers blood pressure, according to Courtney Peterson, the study’s author and assistant professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

    Still, the study’s small size means more research is needed on its possible long-term benefits.

    If skipping breakfast (and other food outside of a restricted time slot) could potentially be good for you, does that mean breakfast could be bad for you? One academic has said so, arguing that breakfast is ‘dangerous’: eating early in the day causes our cortisol to peak more than it does later on. This causes the body to become resistant to insulin over time and can lead to type 2 diabetes.

    But Fredrik Karpe, professor of metabolic medicine at Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism, argues this isn’t the case. Instead, higher levels of cortisol in the morning are just part of our body’s natural rhythm.

    Not only that, but breakfast is key to jumpstarting our metabolism, he says. “In order for other tissues to respond well to food intake, you need an initial trigger involving carbs responding to insulin. Breakfast is critical for this to happen,” Karpe says.

    A randomised control trial published last year involving 18 people with, and 18 people without, diabetes found that skipping breakfast disrupted the circadian rhythms of both groups and led to larger spikes in blood glucose levels after eating. Eating breakfast, the researchers conclude, is essential for keeping our body clock running on time.

    Peterson says those who skip breakfast can be divided into those who either skip breakfast and eat dinner at a normal time – getting the benefits of intermittent fasting, if not breakfast – or those who skip breakfast and eat dinner late.

    While it seems breakfast is the most important meal of the day, it might actually be dinner – Courtney Peterson

    “For those who eat dinner later, their risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease goes through the roof. While it seems breakfast is the most important meal of the day, it might actually be dinner,” she says.

    “Our blood sugar control is best early in the day. When we eat dinner late, that’s when we’re most vulnerable because our blood sugar is worst. There’s more research to do, but I’m confident you shouldn’t skip breakfast and have dinner late.”

    She says we should think of our circadian rhythm as an orchestra.

    “There are two parts of our circadian clock. There’s the master clock in the brain, which we should think of as analogous to a conductor of an orchestra, and the other half is in every organ, which has a separate clock,” she says.

    And that ‘orchestra’ is set by two outside factors: bright light exposure and our eating schedule.

    “If you’re eating when you’re not getting bright light exposure, the clocks that control metabolism are in different time zones, creating conflicting signals as to whether to rev up or down.”

    It’s like two halves of an orchestra playing different songs, Peterson explains, and this is why eating late impairs blood sugar and blood pressure levels.

    Researchers from the University of Surrey and University of Aberdeen are halfway through research looking into the mechanisms behind how the time we eat influences body weight. Early findings suggest that a bigger breakfast is beneficial to weight control.

    Health food

    Breakfast has been found to affect more than just weight. Skipping breakfast has been associated with a 27% increased risk of heart disease, a 21% higher risk of type 2 diabetes in men, and a 20% higher risk of type 2 diabetes in women.

    One reason may be breakfast’s nutritional value – partly because cereal is fortified with vitamins. In one study on the breakfast habits of 1,600 young people in the UK, researchers found that the fibre and micronutrient intake, including of folate, vitamin C iron and calcium, was better in those who had breakfast regularly. There have been similar findings in Australia, Brazil, Canada and the US.

    Breakfast is also associated with improved brain function, including concentration and language. A review of 54 studies found that eating breakfast can improve memory, though the effects on other brain functions were inconclusive. However, one of the review’s researchers, Mary Beth Spitznagel, says there is “reasonable” evidence breakfast does improve concentration – there just needs to be more research.

    “Looking at studies that tested concentration, the number of studies showing a benefit was exactly the same as the number that found no benefit,” she says.

    “And no studies found that eating breakfast was bad for concentration.”

    What’s most important, some argue, is what we eat for breakfast.

    High-protein breakfasts have been found particularly effective in reducing food cravings and consumption later in the day, according to research by the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

    Some cereals contain more than three quarters of the recommended daily amount

    While cereal remains a firm favourite among breakfast consumers in the UK and US, a recent Which? investigation into the sugar content of ‘adult’ breakfast cereals found that some cereals contain more than three quarters of the recommended daily amount of free sugars in each portion, and sugar was the second or third highest ingredient in seven out of 10 flaked cereals.

    But some research suggests if we’re going to eat sugary foods, it’s best to do it early. One study found that changing levels of the appetite hormone leptin in the body throughout the day coincide with having our lowest threshold for sweet food in a morning, while scientists from Tel Aviv University have found that hunger is best regulated in the morning. They recruited 200 obese adults to take part in a 16-week-long diet, where half added dessert to their breakfast, and half didn’t. Those who added dessert lost an average of 40lbs (18kg) more – however, the study was unable to show the long-term effects.

    A review of 54 studies found that there is no consensus yet on what type of breakfast is healthier, and conclude that the type of breakfast doesn’t matter as much as simply eating something.

    Final take

    While there’s no conclusive evidence on exactly what we should be eating and when, the consensus is that we should listen to our own bodies and eat when we’re hungry.

    Breakfast is most important for people who are hungry when they wake up – Alexandra Johnstone

    “Breakfast is most important for people who are hungry when they wake up,” Johnstone says.

    For instance, research shows that those with pre-diabetes and diabetes may find they have better concentration after a lower-GI breakfast such as porridge, which is broken down more slowly and causes a more gradual rise in blood sugar levels.

    Every body starts the day differently – and those individual differences, particularly in glucose function, need to be researched more closely, Spitznagel says.

    In the end, the key may be to be mindful of not over-emphasising any single meal, but rather looking at how we eat all day long.

    Breakfast isn’t the only meal we should be getting right – Sarah Elder

    “A balanced breakfast is really helpful, but getting regular meals throughout the day is more important to leave blood sugar stable through day, that helps control weight and hunger levels,” says Elder.

    “Breakfast isn’t the only meal we should be getting right.”

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    When the body breaks down fructose, it can contribute to the growth of plaque in arteries
    Food Fictions Nutrition Food
    Is sugar really bad for you?
    People who eat more sweets are at higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer… but that may not actually be sugar’s fault. BBC Future investigates the latest findings.

    By Jessica Brown
    19 September 2018
    It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when humans only had access to sugar for a few months a year when fruit was in season. Some 80,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers ate fruit sporadically and infrequently, since they were competing with birds.

    Now, our sugar hits come all year round, often with less nutritional value and far more easily – by simply opening a soft drink or cereal box. It doesn’t take an expert to see that our modern sugar intake is less healthy than it was in our foraging days. Today, sugar has become public health enemy number one: governments are taxing it, schools and hospitals are removing it from vending machines and experts are advising that we remove it completely from our diets.

    But so far, scientists have had a difficult time proving how it affects our health, independent of a diet too high in calories. A review of research conducted over the last five years summarised that a diet of more than 150g of fructose per day reduces insulin sensitivity – and therefore increases the risk of developing health problems like high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. But the researchers also concluded that this occurs most often when high sugar intake is combined with excess calories, and that the effects on health are "more likely" due to sugar intake increasing the chance of excess calories, not the impact of sugar alone.

    Meanwhile, there is also a growing argument that demonising a single food is dangerous – and causes confusion that risks us cutting out vital foods.

    Sugar, otherwise known as ‘added sugar’, includes table sugar, sweeteners, honey and fruit juices, and is extracted, refined and added to food and drink to improve taste.

    But both complex and simple carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules, which are broken down by digestion into glucose and used by every cell in the body to generate energy and fuel the brain. Complex carbohydrates include wholegrains and vegetables. Simple carbohydrates are more easily digested and quickly release sugar into the bloodstream. They include sugars found naturally in the foods we eat, such as fructose, lactose, sucrose and glucose and others, like high fructose corn syrup, which are manmade.

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    Before the 16th Century only the rich could afford sugar. But it became more available with colonial trade.

    Then, in the 1960s, the development of large-scale conversion of glucose into fructose led to the creation of high fructose corn syrup, a concentrate of glucose and fructose.

    This potent combination, above any other single type of sugar, is the one many public health advocates consider the most lethal – and it is the one that many people think of when they think of ‘sugar’.

    Sugar rush

    Consumption of high fructose corn syrup in the US increased tenfold between 1970 and 1990, more than any other food group. Researchers have pointed out that this mirrors the increase in obesity across the country.

    Meanwhile, sugary drinks, which usually use high fructose corn syrup, have been central to research examining the effects of sugar on our health. One meta-analysis of 88 studies found a link between sugary drinks consumption and body weight. In other words, people don’t fully compensate for getting energy from soft drinks by consuming less of other foods – possibly because these drinks increase hunger or decrease satiety.

    But the researchers concluded that while the intake of soft drinks and added sugars has increased alongside obesity in the US, the data only represents broad correlations.

    And not everyone agrees that high fructose corn syrup is the driving factor in the obesity crisis. Some experts point out that consumption of the sugar has been declining for the past 10 years in countries including the US, even while obesity levels have been rising. There also are epidemics of obesity and diabetes in areas where there is little or no high fructose corn syrup available, such as Australia and Europe.

    High fructose corn syrup isn’t the only kind of sugar seen as problematic. Added sugar, particularly fructose, is blamed for a variety of problems.

    People who consumed 25% or more of calories as added sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease

    For one, it’s said to cause heart disease. When liver cells break down fructose, one of the end products is triglyceride – a form of fat – which can build up in liver cells over time. When it is released into the bloodstream, it can contribute to the growth of fat-filled plaque inside artery walls.

    One 15-year study seemed to back this up: it found that people who consumed 25% or more of their daily calories as added sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease than those who consumed less than 10%. Type 2 diabetes also is attributed to added sugar intake. Two large studies in the 1990s found that women who consumed more than one soft drink or fruit juice per day were twice as likely to develop diabetes as those who rarely did so.

    Sweet nothings?

    But again, it’s unclear if that means sugar actually causes heart disease or diabetes. Luc Tappy, professor of physiology at the University of Lausanne, is one of many scientists who argue that the main cause of diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure is excess calorie intake, and that sugar is simply one component of this.

    “More energy intake than energy expenditure will, in the long term, lead to fat deposition, insulin resistance and a fatty liver, whatever the diet composition,” he says. “In people with a high energy output and a matched energy intake, even a high fructose/sugar diet will be well tolerated.”

    Overall, evidence that added sugar directly causes type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity or cancer is thin

    Tappy points out that athletes, for example, often have higher sugar consumption but lower rates of cardiovascular disease: high fructose intake can be metabolised during exercise to increase performance.

    Overall, evidence that added sugar directly causes type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity or cancer is thin. Yes, higher intakes are associated with these conditions. But clinical trials have yet to establish that it causes them.

    Sugar also has been associated with addiction… but this finding, too, may not be what it seems. A review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2017 cited findings that mice can experience sugar withdrawal and argued that sugar produces similar effects to cocaine, such as craving. But the paper was widely accused of misinterpreting the evidence. One key criticism was that the animals were restricted to having sugar for two hours a day: if you allow them to have it whenever they want it, which reflects how we consume it, they don’t show addiction-like behaviours.

    Still, studies have demonstrated other ways in which sugar affects our brains. Matthew Pase, research fellow at Swinburne’s Centre for Human Psychopharmacology in Australia, examined the association between self-reported sugary beverage consumption and markers of brain health determined by MRI scans. Those who drank soft drinks and fruit juices more frequently displayed smaller average brain volumes and poorer memory function. Consuming two sugary drinks per day aged the brain two years compared to those who didn’t drink any at all. But Pase explains that since he only measured fruit juice intake, he can’t be sure that sugar alone is what affects brain health.

    “People who drink more fruit juice or soft drinks may share other dietary or lifestyle habits that relate to brain health. For example, they may also exercise less,” Pase says.

    One recent study found that consuming sugar can make older people more motivated to perform difficult tasks

    One recent study found that sugar may even help improve memory and performance in older adults. Researchers gave participants a drink containing a small amount of glucose and asked them to perform various memory tasks. Other participants were given a drink containing artificial sweetener as a control. They measured the participants' levels of engagement, their memory score, and their own perception of how much effort they’d applied.

    The results suggested that consuming sugar can make older people more motivated to perform difficult tasks at full capacity – without them feeling as if they tried harder. Increased blood sugar levels also made them feel happier during the task.

    Younger adults showed increased energy after consuming the glucose drink, but it didn’t affect their mood or memory.

    Teaspoon of sugar

    While current guidelines advise that added sugars shouldn't make up more than 5% of our daily calorie intake, dietitian Renee McGregor says it’s important to understand that a healthy, balanced diet is different for everyone.

    “I work with athletes who need to take on more sugar when doing a hard session because it’s easily digestible. But they worry they’re going over the guidelines,” she says.

    For most of us non-athletes, it’s true that added sugar isn’t crucial for a healthy diet. But some experts warn we shouldn’t single it out as toxic.

    McGregor, whose clients include those with orthorexia, a fixation with eating healthily, says that it isn’t healthy to label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. And turning sugar into a taboo may only make it more tempting. “As soon as you say you can’t have something, you want it,” she says. “That’s why I never say anything is off-limits. I’ll say a food has no nutritional value. But sometimes foods have other values.”

    Associate professor at James Madison University Alan Levinovitz studies the relationship between religion and science. He says there’s a simple reason we look at sugar as evil: throughout history, we’ve demonised the things we find hardest to resist (think of sexual pleasure in the Victorian times).

    Today, we do this with sugar to gain control over cravings.

    Sugar is intensely pleasurable, so we have to see it as a cardinal sin – Alan Levinovitz

    “Sugar is intensely pleasurable, so we have to see it as a cardinal sin. When we see things in simple good and evil binaries, it becomes unthinkable that this evil thing can exist in moderation. This is happening with sugar,” he says.

    He argues that that seeing food in such extremes can make us anxious about what we’re eating – and add a moral judgment onto something as necessary, and as everyday, as deciding what to eat.

    Taking sugar out of our diets can even be counterproductive: it can mean replacing it with something potentially more calorific, such as if you substitute a fat for a sugar in a recipe.

    And amid the rising debate around sugar, we risk confusing those foods and drinks with added sugar that lack other essential nutrients, like soft drinks, with healthy foods that have sugars, like fruit.

    One person who struggled with this distinction is 28-year-old Tina Grundin of Sweden, who says she used to think all sugars were unhealthy. She pursued a high-protein, high-fat vegan diet, which she says led to an undiagnosed eating disorder.

    “When I started throwing up after eating, I knew I couldn’t go on much longer. I’d grown up fearing sugar in all forms,” she says. “Then I realised there was a difference between added sugar and sugar as a carbohydrate and I adopted a high-fructose, high-starch diet with natural sugars found in fruit, vegetables, starches and legumes.

    “From the first day, it was like the fog lifted and I could see clearly. I finally gave my cells fuel, found in glucose, from carbohydrates, from sugars.”

    While there’s disagreement around how different types of sugars affect our health, the irony is we might be better off thinking about it less.

    “We’ve really overcomplicated nutrition because, fundamentally, what everyone is searching for is a need to feel complete, to feel perfect and successful,” says McGregor. “But that doesn’t exist.


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