Is Sugar Really The Problem? (June 2021 Focus on Food Article)

taste areas on the human tongue

Let’s go back to infancy and our taste buds. We have sweet receptors in the front area of our tongue, and breast milk is high in sugar (which is sweet!). So why wouldn’t we want sugar?! We were designed to like it and thrive from it from day 1. It’s no wonder we are drawn to it well into adulthood; so shall we stop demonizing it? Let’s!

Sugar is not meant to be eaten to the point where we are buzzing and sick from it and to feel that super high then big ol’ crash. If we are attuned to our body, we can FEEL the taste of that sweet goodness dull after eating enough (hormones from the gut come out and try to persuade us from continuing to eat). Our bodies have its own self-regulatory system if we are paying attention.

Now we can understand the physiology.

The story is complicated, however.

Then we add psychology and human behavior. When we don’t get our needs met or we deprive ourselves from sugar or other foods or call sugar “bad” etc, we are heightening its glory and awe. We end up wanting MORE. Then our insatiable out-of-control feelings can step come in. Sugar is not addicting when we allow for it and pay attention to the body signals. It’s the idea that we can’t have it combined with not filling our emotional needs that causes that tremendous pull (i.e. “sugar addiction” that you may feel you have).

I often hear people talk (with glee sometimes) how they are kicking sugar out of their lives. They say “I’m totally addicted to sugar”. That delusionary power is covering up a desperation. See, they are dying for control over what they feel is an out-of-control problem (sugar in this case). They look at this food as if it’s the enemy and we all need to get rid of it completely. I have complicated professional and personal feelings about this. I know a lot of our food supply is less than desirable and we need people like me (Registered Dietitians) to pick a part the wholesome and nutrient-dense to the potentially nutrient-barren, pro-inflammatory, and disease-promoting food. It’s my job to do this. But when we overeat and feel chronically powerless over sugar there is often more to the story.

But listen… there’s more to it and this article is not about our type of food supply or food politics. Of course it’s responsible and wise to be informed about what’s in your food. Look at those ingredients and ask Registered Dietitians the questions. BUT, I dare say the pull to sugar – that strong beckoning – is not just the quick sugar taste and brain boost you feel once that sugar hits your tongue. It’s deeper. Sugar may be filling a psychological need in your life you are not addressing.

Is sugar really the problem?

It’s actually the symptom.

The problem is we aren’t addressing the core issues, so you’re using sugar as the band-aid, and if eaten in excess it can cause unwanted side effects:

  • Moodiness
  • Guilt
  • Weight Gain
  • Chronic illnesses such as Cardiovascular Disease
  • Poor self-worth
  • And more…

And we still don’t get what we need.

Every unwanted eating challenge is rooted in psychology and biology or both.

It’s not about willpower. You are following the wisdom of an innate need. You are seeking comfort and avoiding pain. This is survival! So you see why we reach for a very available, legal, and potent aid?

Don’t you notice that when you are fulfilled and content and meeting all your needs, you don’t yearn for sugar as much?

I do know this for sure. The abstinence model to treat “sugar addiction” is not the answer. I think that caution should be used when restricting foods from your diet (especially foods that you tend to enjoy), and you should be conscious of the effect that this restriction has on your mind and body.

There’s something that psychologists call “symbolic substitutes.” A symbolic substitute is exactly what it sounds like: when a human being can’t get the thing we actually want, we will turn to the next closest and most accessible thing. And sugar is one of the most common symbolic substitutes.

Exploring our food habits from a more fulfilled place, we find our cravings naturally unwind themselves, and we can find the kind of peace and freedom that we’ve been seeking in sugar.

two hands touching

The work is adding more life, love, connection, boundaries, empowerment… Whatever is calling forth within you. How do you access what you need? Perhaps you know what it is. Or maybe you need stillness to let that need come forward that’s gnawing at you. Or perhaps you need a trained, attuned psychologist to help you find those answers. It’s worth the effort, no? Otherwise the yearning and gnawing could remain and that sugar will keep its power.

So if you are abstaining from sugar to try to get a handle on your sugar desires, try to look deeper. What a wonderful opportunity to learn more about you!

With hope and help,

Miriam Jirari MPH, RDN, CPT
Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor
Studio SWEAT Dietitian


Do You Really Think Sugar is Your Problem? with Marc David – YouTube

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