Have you heard that sugar is bad for you? Or maybe that it’s…
- The thing that makes us fat.
- The true cause of obesity.
- The underlying reason behind everything that’s wrong in the world.
Well, in this article, I’m going to tell you the truth about sugar, how much is “too much,” and help you figure out how many grams of it to eat a day.
Let’s start with the most important point of all…
Sugar Isn’t Good Or Bad… It’s Neutral
People love to classify everything in life as being either good or bad, black or white, right or wrong.
But the reality is, very few things are ever that clear cut. Food is no different.
Yet all you ever see are people claiming that everyone must eat some magical food because it’s ALWAYS universally good for you, and that everyone must avoid some evil food because it’s ALWAYS universally bad for you.
Now while this all sounds wonderful and makes it really easy to write cute little lists of “good foods” you can eat and “bad foods” you can’t, it’s almost never actually true.
Most foods, food groups, and nutrients aren’t good or bad. They are neutral, pending context.
It’s All About Context
Meaning… all foods, in and of themselves, are inherently neutral.
The same is true of sugar. It’s a completely neutral substance that is neither good nor bad.
What then determines if it’s good or bad for you is the specific context of how it’s being consumed, the overall diet it’s a part of, the manner in which it’s being included in that diet, what kind of sugar we’re even talking about (e.g. glucose vs fructose vs galactose vs lactose vs sucrose vs maltose? added sugars vs naturally occurring?), and the individual needs, preferences, and lifestyle of the person who’s eating it.
To help show you what I mean, I’m going to provide you with some common scenarios of when sugar is bad for you, completely neutral, and – believe it or not – even good for you.
5 Examples Of When Sugar Is Bad For You
Let’s begin with some examples of when it’s legitimately bad.
Example 1: When It Causes Too Many Calories To Be Eaten
The one and only thing that makes us fat is a consistent caloric surplus (i.e. eating too many calories).
This is a scientifically proven fact that is not open to debate. Well, I mean, you can debate it if you want. You’re just going to be wrong 100% of the time.
Basically, the way it works is that when you consume more calories than you burn – regardless of the source of those calories – the excess is stored in the form of body fat. This is how fat is gained. When you consume fewer calories than you burn, stored body fat is burned for energy instead. This is how fat is lost.
(Confused? I explain this in detail here: Calories In vs Calories Out, The Truth About How To Lose Fat, and What’s The Best Way To Lose Weight.)
Knowing this, the most common scenario where sugar is truly bad for you is when you’re eating so much of it that it causes a consistent caloric surplus to exist.
Because when that happens, you’ll end up gaining weight and getting fat.
And when that happens, the door is open for the VERY long list of negative effects associated with being overweight to manifest themselves, which means countless potential problems for your health and well being (e.g. type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and much more).
So yes, if you’re consuming sugar in a manner that causes you to gain weight (or simply remain at an unhealthy weight), it’s most definitely bad for you.
But It’s Not The Sugar Itself… It’s The Excess Calories
Please note, however, that it’s not actually the sugar itself that is directly responsible for these negative effects. Rather, it’s the weight gain caused by the consumption of too many calories.
Sugar just happens to be really tasty, not very filling, and is often present in higher calorie foods (cookies, doughnuts, candy bars, etc.), thus making it extremely easy to overeat (and over-drink) and therefore more likely to be the source of the excess calories that eventually leads to weight gain.
So really, the thing that is truly “bad” for you is being overweight.
It just so happens to be that…
- Weight gain is what makes that happen…
- And eating too many calories is what causes weight gain…
- And sugar is one of the sources of calories people commonly overeat in this scenario to end up gaining that weight.
Of course, they could have overeaten literally anything else (yes, even “healthy” foods) and the end result would be the same.
Which is why sugar itself isn’t (directly) the real problem. It’s excess calories, period, and the weight gain it causes.
Example 2: When It Takes The Place Of Protein/Fat
The calories we consume come from our three macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbs.
- Protein is crucial for the overall health and function of the human body (e.g. provides the essential amino acids, responsible for the growth and repair of cells and tissues, etc.), and it plays a bunch of important roles in building muscle (it’s a requirement) as well as losing weight/preventing weight gain (e.g. preserving muscle while losing fat, controlling hunger, etc.).
- Fat is also crucial for the overall health and function of the human body in a variety of ways (e.g. providing the essential fatty acids, absorbing fat soluble vitamins, hormone production, etc.).
- Carbs are a little different, as they don’t provide us with anything considered “essential” (meaning nutrients that our bodies require but cannot produce on their own) like protein and fat do, but it’s still a dietary component playing many important roles of its own (e.g. optimizing training performance and recovery, making diets more sustainable, etc.).
Why am I telling you this?
Because Sugar = Carbs
Which means, if you’re eating so much sugar that it makes your carb intake overly high, which then (conversely) makes your protein and/or fat intake insufficiently low, there are going to be negative effects.
So yes, in this context, sugar is bad for you.
But please note again that it’s not any innate factor of the sugar itself that would directly be causing these negative effects. Rather, it would be the fact that your protein and/or fat intake is insufficient. Eating too much sugar was just the indirect means to making that happen.
Example 3: When It Takes The Place Of Nutrient-Dense Foods
In addition to macronutrients, there are a host of other nutrients that play countless roles in the health and well being of your body.
You know… like vitamins and minerals.
And this stuff is most commonly found in the foods that we typically deem to be “good” and “healthy.”
Fruits and vegetables would be perfect examples of such nutrient-dense foods.
Sugar, on the other hand, is considered “empty calories” due to its lack of nutritional value.
(Side Note: Technically speaking, it depends on the source of the sugar. For instance, things like candy or a can of soda – which are largely if not entirely just sugar – would be the perfect example of empty calories, whereas putting some sugar on your oatmeal, or an enriched/fortified sugary cereal, or a candy bar that contains nuts, would be a different story as there are now other nutrients present along with the sugar. But let’s ignore this and pretend all sources of sugar = empty calories.)
Why does this matter?
Because if you’re eating so much sugar that it’s taking the place of the much-more-important higher quality nutrient-dense foods that you should be eating (like fruits and vegetables), then yes… sugar will be bad for you.
But once again, please note that it’s not the sugar itself that is directly problematic here.
Rather, it’s the fact that you’re eating it in a manner that prevents the sufficient consumption of more nutritionally-important foods, thereby leading to an insufficient micronutrient intake or perhaps full on nutrient deficiencies.
Example 4: When It’s Eaten To An Excessive Degree
This is much more of a broad example than the others, but I’m throwing it in to make an important point.
And that is… anything consumed to an excessive degree is bad for you.
It’s why we use the word “excessive” to describe it.
Be it something typically viewed as “bad” and “unhealthy” (like sugar is), or something commonly viewed as “good” and “healthy.”
For example, fish oil.
It’s damn near universally regarded as a good/great thing. But guess what? Excessive amounts of it can have negative effects.
The same goes for fiber.
Hell, even water can become toxic (i.e. water intoxication) and literally kill you when it’s consumed to an excessive degree.
Which is all my way of saying that in a scenario where something is being consumed in the proper amounts it should be, it’s fine. Potentially even good for you. But when it’s consumed to an excessive degree? That’s a context where everything (sugar, water, fiber, fish oil, and whatever else you can think of) can become bad for you.
Example 5: When Other Factors Are Already Poor
Now let’s say some or all of the following is true…
- You’re already overweight.
- Your diet sucks.
- You get little to no exercise.
- Your non-exercise activity level is low.
- You don’t sleep enough.
- Your stress levels are high.
- You smoke.
- You drink too much alcohol.
- You have preexisting health problems.
Eating a bunch of sugar in addition to this certainly has the potential to worsen the various problems you already have thanks to the various other things you’re already doing wrong, or accelerate the speed at which those problems first come into existence.
So yeah, in this context, sugar can potentially be bad.
But is it the sugar itself that is truly the “bad” thing that’s causing the negative effects? No. Sugar is just the icing on an already-shitty cake.
An Example Of When Sugar Is Neutral
So, those were the 5 most common examples of when sugar is bad. Now let’s take a look at one example of when it’s completely neutral.
Example: When The “Bad” Scenarios Aren’t Present
Do me a favor. Take the 5 scenarios we just discussed and remove them.
That would mean the following statements are now true…
- You’re consuming the right amount of calories a day.
In most cases, this means you’re in a consistent caloric deficit (to lose weight), at your maintenance level (to maintain a healthy weight), or possibly in a small controlled caloric surplus for the purpose of “lean bulking.” Basically, you’re not eating more than you should be.
- You’re maintaining a healthy weight or successfully losing weight.
This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point, obviously. So, you’re within a healthy range of body fat, or you’re actively moving towards that goal.
- You’re consuming ideal amounts of protein, fat, and carbs.
No macronutrient is lower or higher than it should be, there is a healthy balance, and everything is within its ideal range.
- The majority of your diet comes from higher quality, nutrient-dense foods.
Which means you’re eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and other similar “good” foods, getting sufficient amounts of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and so on.
- Any sugar or junk food present in your diet is eaten in moderation.
So you may be eating sugar/junk food, but you’re doing it with an intelligent amount of moderation such that the majority of your diet comes from the good stuff and only the remaining minority comes from the junkier stuff.
- You live an overall healthy lifestyle.
You exercise regularly. Get enough sleep. Minimize stress. Don’t smoke. Don’t go overboard with alcohol. And so on.
In this context, sugar isn’t bad.
Rather… it’s completely neutral.
And this isn’t the ONLY scenario where it’s neutral. It’s actually possible for some of these factors to be some degree less-than-ideal and, even then, moderate amounts of sugar still may not be problematic at all.
An Example Of When Sugar Is Good For You
Now let me show you an example of when sugar can actually be a good thing.
Example: When It Helps You Sustain Your Diet
Take most of the “neutral” example we just covered.
Only now, let’s pretend the person is having trouble losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight.
They try diet after diet, method after method, but they just can’t stick to anything long enough to reach their goal or maintain it afterwards without regaining the weight they lost.
This is an extremely common scenario, and one of the most common reasons why it happens is because the diet that the person is attempting to use is simply too restrictive for them to sustain.
Restrictive in what ways, you ask? All kinds of ways.
- No sugar is allowed.
- No junk food is allowed.
- They must eat “clean” 100% of the time.
- They can’t eat carbs.
- They can’t eat fat.
- They can’t eat non-Paleo foods.
- They can’t eat at certain times.
- They can only eat “good” foods that are on the “allowed” list, and they must avoid “bad” foods that are on the “forbidden” list.
Basically, the person is attempting to use a diet that is unnecessarily restrictive in ways that clash with their personal needs and preferences for long-term sustainability.
And when that happens – where everything deemed “bad” is completely off limits – it causes people to eventually reach a breaking point.
A breaking point fueled by excessively depriving themselves of something they really want. A breaking point that ultimately causes them to “give in” by doing a massive binge, or by going off their diet for an extended period of time, or by quitting their diet altogether.
And this is often followed by restarting their diet with even MORE restriction, or switching to a new diet that comes with MORE restriction… which is then followed by MORE breaking points. And the cycle repeats itself over and over.
Not only to the detriment of their weight loss progress, but often to the detriment of their mental and physical health.
The Simple Solution To This Problem
But here’s the thing most people overlook.
If they weren’t so overly and unnecessarily strict in the first place, this outcome could have been avoided.
Meaning, keeping sane amounts of the “bad” foods they love (like foods high in sugar) available to them in moderation as a minor part of an overall good diet would help keep them happy and prevent this “breaking point” scenario from ever taking place.
Which means the person now becomes able to stick to their diet and eat the amount of calories and macronutrients they should be eating each day.
Which means the person now becomes able to successfully lose weight and maintain it long-term.
Which means all of the health markers that improve as a direct result of going from an unhealthy weight to a healthy weight improve significantly.
Which means… in this context… sugar ends up indirectly being both GOOD and HEALTHY for this person.
A Quick Summary
Soooo, here’s a quick summary of what we’ve covered so far…
But, But, But…
Yeah, I know.
The evidence-based, common sense, level-headed view of the reality of what sugar actually is (and isn’t) is vastly different from the exaggerated, myth-based, one sided, fear mongering bullshit you’re used to hearing from various misinformed people, stupid people, liars, nutjobs, anti-sugar documentaries on Netflix, doctors who have anti-sugar books to sell (to solve fictional problems of their own creation), and other similarly terrible sources of information.
And for that reason, you probably still have a few remaining questions about sugar.
Let’s cover them now in a lightning round o’ fun…
Is Sugar Toxic?
Lolz. The short and simple answer to this question is no, it’s not.
For a more technically-accurate answer, allow me to quote James Fell’s interview with nutrition researcher Alan Aragon…
Yes, sugar is toxic, if you consume an absolutely ridiculous amount. Everything is toxic if you consume too much of it. As the adage goes: “The dose makes the poison.”
Is it toxic in the amounts most people consume? Not even close.
“The LD50 — which is the median lethal dose that kills about half the people who take it — for sugar is about 30 grams per kilo of body mass,” Aragon explained. They tested it on rodents, just FYI. These aren’t evil scientists. I mean, unless you’re a lab rat. “For a 180-pound guy, that works out to eating six pounds of sugar at one sitting to be 50% lethal.” Aragon went on to explain that the LD50 of salt is 3 grams per kilo of body weight. “Does that mean people will now say salt is 10 times more toxic than sugar?” Aragon said. “It’s ridiculous.” As for the claims that eating sugar feeds cancer cells, “It’s baloney. There is no evidence to support that.” (source)
Is Sugar Addictive?
No… it’s not.
Here’s a quote from a 2016 research paper called Sugar addiction: the state of the science which concluded, among other things:
“We find little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans, and findings from the animal literature suggest that addiction-like behaviours, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar. These behaviours likely arise from intermittent access to sweet tasting or highly palatable foods, not the neurochemical effects of sugar.”
(I’d also recommend checking out James Krieger’s breakdown of this study and others pertaining to this topic here.)
The myth of “sugar addiction” is actually something I will be writing a full article about in the near future. Stay tuned… because it’s going to cover everything.
But until then, I will say this…
If you think you’re addicted to sugar (and it’s the reason why you’re overweight/can’t lose weight), you’re incorrect.
The real problem is that you enjoy eating yummy foods that taste good (some of which may contain sugar), and you’re unable to make the dietary, psychological, and behavioral adjustments needed to help minimize or prevent the over-consumption of those foods.
You know… just like every other overweight person on the planet.
But that doesn’t mean “sugar addiction” still isn’t dangerous. Because it is. Here’s a little graphic I made to illustrate the TRUE dangers…
Please don’t allow yourself to get caught in this vicious cycle! 😉
Does Eating Sugar Make You Fat?
YES… if it leads to a consistent caloric surplus.
NO… if it doesn’t.
You know, just like with every other food, food group, or nutrient in existence.
Sugar is no different.
Like I mentioned earlier, the one and only thing that makes us fat is eating too many calories. Whether those calories come from “good” foods or “bad” foods doesn’t matter. It’s the caloric surplus itself that makes it happen, not the specific food sources that supplied those calories.
Details here: Do Carbs, Sugar, or “Bad” Foods Make You Fat?
As I also mentioned earlier, the fact that sugar tastes really good, isn’t filling, and is often found in higher calorie foods certainly makes it easier for us to overeat those calories than say, for example, calories from protein or vegetables… which are significantly more filling and usually much lower in calories.
And the fact that calories from sugar are also available in an even easier-to-consume drinkable form (e.g. regular soda, sports drinks, juices, etc.) definitely makes matters worse.
But regardless, it still comes down to calories in vs calories out.
Consume too much of anything, and you get fat.
Simple as that.
The Opposite Is True, Too
On the other hand, if you create a consistent caloric deficit, you can get your daily calories from whatever the hell you want and you’d STILL lose fat just fine.
Yes, even if a significant amount of your daily calories come from sugar.
Don’t believe me?
While there are plenty of studies that confirm this (like this one, which divided women into 2 groups, had each create a caloric deficit, and then had one group get just 4% of their diet from sugar while the other got a whopping 43% of their diet from sugar – and both groups still lost the same amount of weight), my favorite bit of proof is The Twinkie Diet.
The Twinkie Diet
Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University, went on a 10-week diet comprised largely of snack foods that are super high in sugar (e.g. Twinkies, Little Debbie cakes, Oreos, brownies, sugary cereals, etc.).
However, he also created a caloric deficit.
Guess what happened?
He lost 27 lbs in 2 months and reduced his body fat percentage from 33.4% to 24.9%. He also reduced his “bad” cholesterol (LDL) by 20%, increased his “good” cholesterol (HDL) 20%, and reduced triglycerides by 39%. (source)
Why? Because sugar isn’t what causes us to gain fat, and it’s not the thing we need to avoid in order to lose it.
That ALWAYS comes down to total calories.
Sugar is just one of the many sources that can potentially provide those calories.
(Note: I don’t actually recommend eating like this or even remotely close to this. I’m just using it as an example.)
But I Heard Sugar Is The Cause Of Obesity?
You heard wrong.
Consistently eating too many calories, often combined with a general lack of physical activity, is what causes obesity.
Sugar is just one of the many things that stupid people like to claim is the one big scary underlying cause. Other stupid people do the same thing with everything from carbs, to fat, to dairy, to wheat, to gluten, to foods that cavemen didn’t eat, and so on.
It’s all just a slightly different variation of the exact same bullshit.
Is Sugar Evil?
It’s just a tasty source of empty calories. Nothing more, nothing less.
The only things that could come close to being considered “evil” here are…
- The detrimental and/or excessive manner in which certain people over-consume sugar.
- The misinformation-fueled fear mongering that leads people to falsely believe it’s inherently evil when it’s actually inherently neutral.
Here’s a simple flowchart I’ve put together to help make this point a little bit clearer…
All clear now? Good.
But What About Insulin?
Eh, what about it?
That eating sugar (and carbs in general) raises insulin levels, and that’s what causes body fat to be gained?
Yeah, let me just stop you right there and point out that everything you think you know about insulin is complete horseshit built around myths, lies, and misinformation created by a bunch of low carb anti-sugar quacks (that the actual scientific community has been debunking/laughing at for years) which is then perpetuated by the clueless people who follow them.
To learn the evidence-based truth about insulin, I’d highly recommend reading James Krieger’s multi-part series that begins right here: Insulin… An Undeserved Bad Reputation
He covers everything.
Also feel free to check out my breakdown of how and why low carb diets actually work for weight loss.
Is Sugar The Cause Of Type 2 Diabetes?
The evidence points to no.
At least, not directly.
Genetics and being overweight are the main causes of diabetes.
So, if you’re consuming excessive amounts of sugar, and it’s causing you to be in a consistent enough caloric surplus to gain weight, reach an unhealthy weight, and/or remain at an unhealthy weight… then yes, that’s when eating sugar can indirectly lead to type 2 diabetes.
But directly? As in sugar itself directly causes diabetes? That appears to be false.
Let me again quote James Fell quoting experts on this subject…
Aragon and Dr. Susan Kleiner (who has a PhD in nutrition) both assert that the link between a high sugar intake and the development of type 2 diabetes is indirect. I spoke with yet another expert on the matter, Raylene Reimer, a professor of nutrition at the University of Calgary and a registered dietitian, and she concurred: “It’s an indirect contribution,” Reimer said. “There is strong evidence that high sugar intake will cause you to gain weight, and by increasing body weight that contributes to the development of type 2 diabetes.”
Susan Kleiner said the debate about there being a direct role — meaning that there is something about sugar ingestion irrespective of it contributing to obesity — that causes type 2 diabetes is “hugely controversial.” And Kleiner told me, “As the data stands right now I cannot say that a high sugar intake directly leads to type 2 diabetes, but it is undeniable that in most cases, especially with inactive people, that high sugar intake leads to obesity, which leads to other health problems and alterations in internal biochemistry and physiology and this is what increases risk for developing type 2 diabetes.”
Alan Aragon agreed that it’s all about the obesity, regardless of what macronutrient intake causes it. (source)
I also asked Blake Metcalf, a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) who is board certified in Advanced Diabetes Management (BC-ADM), for his thoughts on sugar’s role as THE cause of everything bad in the world. Here’s what he had to say:
Obesity is definitely a driver of all things cardiometabolic in nature. It’s a complex monster that has a biological, psychological, social, and environmental component. Blaming sugar is a very myopic, reductionist argument to an incredibly nuanced topic. Diet is certainly very important for obesity, diabetes, and general cardiometabolic disease prevention but it can’t fix the growing problems surrounding health literacy, lack of physical activity, and a mass of socioeconomic barriers such as the hunger-obesity paradox.
Ironically, what you’ll see in practice is when people are “removing sugar” they are usually replacing it with a diet that is high in saturated fats which is just trading one dietary problem for another when considering risk for cardiometabolic disease. As you’ve stated above, the entire context of the diet must be considered before demonizing any single food item or nutrient.
How Much Sugar Should I Eat A Day?
Now for the final thing you’re probably wondering about: how much sugar should you eat a day?
Well, as you should certainly understand by this point, this isn’t the kind of thing that can have a universal “grams per day” recommendation.
It doesn’t work that way.
Exactly how much sugar a person should eat a day or exactly what constitutes being “too much” for them depends on them and their specific needs, overall diet, overall lifestyle, and so on.
But, can we at least narrow it down a little bit?
I think we can.
Recommended Sugar Intake Per Day
Let me start this section by saying that if you have any preexisting health issues that warrant keeping your sugar intake within some kind of doctor-specified range, then by all means, do that. Any further questions you may have about this should be discussed with your doctor.
But for everyone else? Here’s what I recommend…
- Start With Calories
First, make sure you’re consuming the right amount of calories per day so that you’re either maintaining a healthy weight/body fat percentage, or are on your way to reaching that goal.
- Then… Protein, Fat, Carbs
Second, consume an ideal amount of protein each day, and then fill in the rest of your daily calories with whatever ratio of fat and carbs you happen to like best (I recommend 20-30% of your total calories from fat, and then fill in the remaining calories with carbs). Details here: How To Calculate Your Macros
- Then… Diet Quality
Third, get the vast majority (i.e. 80-90%) of those calories/macronutrients from higher quality, minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods you enjoy, with an extra added emphasis on fruit and vegetable consumption.
- Then… Diet Sanity
Fourth, feel free to then get the remaining minority (i.e. 10-20%) of your calories from the typical “fun” foods you already know should be kept to a minimum, but let’s make it a sane yet still enjoyable and sustainable minimum. In my experience, this “80-90% higher quality and 10-20% lower quality” ratio tends to be an ideal balance for most people in terms of diet quality, overall health, sustainability and… you know… life not sucking.
- Then… Sugar
Fifth, feel free to get whatever portion of that 10-20% minority you prefer from sugar, without feeling guilty about it. It’s fine.
- Then… Everything Else
In addition, I’d also recommend doing some form of challenging exercise on a regular basis (like weight training and/or cardio), drinking a sufficient amount of water, getting a sufficient amount of sleep, doing your best to minimize stress as much as possible, not smoking, keeping your alcohol intake in check, laughing as much as possible, and having a whole lot of sex.
(By the way… if you happen to need any help with these 6 steps, I kinda wrote a book all about them: Superior Fat Loss)
That’s The Scary Truth About Sugar
So, here’s the deal.
There is nothing about sugar that makes it intrinsically bad.
It’s just a source of empty calories that tastes really good.
That’s literally it.
Whether or not it has a negative effect, a positive effect, or no effect whatsoever on you, your diet, and your health is entirely dependent on context.
And even in those contexts where sugar DOES have a negative effect, it’s always an indirect one. Meaning, it’s not any property of the sugar itself that is directly “bad” for you, but rather other things that are occurring as a side effect of consuming sugar in excessive/stupid ways.
As long as you avoid doing that, you’re probably going to be just fine.
If you liked this article, you’ll also like: The Truth About The Low Carb Diet