Why You Don’t Need to Fear Sugar

person on a scaleNov 28, 2023

By Caroline Young, MS, RD, LD, RYT

You’ve heard it all: Sugar is bad. Sugar is toxic. Sugar will destroy your health.

Fear-mongering messages around sugar abound. They are extreme, unhelpful, and take the joy out of eating dessert.

Truthfully, it is not that simple – cutting out one ingredient (like sugar) or groups of food is not what will lead to better health. In fact, it can be detrimental to health.

The Scoop on Sugar

  • Sugar is glucose, and glucose is the primary energy source of our bodies. We all need glucose for our organs to function properly and to have adequate energy (1).
  • Naturally occurring sugars are those found in milk, cheese and unsweetened yogurt (lactose), and fruit (fructose). Lactose and fructose are both broken down into glucose in our bodies (2). MyPlate recommends dairy be consumed daily, and for each person to choose the best milk and cheese for his or her specific dietary needs.
  • Added sugars are any sugar or syrups added to foods during processing and preparation, and are found in things like baked goods and soda. They include ingredients like honey, agave nectar, maltose, corn syrup, maple syrup and molasses. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that your daily intake contain 10 percent or less of added sugars (3).

Natural & Added Sugars

Your body does not know the difference between sugar from a fresh apple (natural sugars) and sugar from a traditional chocolate chip cookie (added sugars). The difference is in how the sugars are digested.

The apple is full of fiber, which creates a feeling of satiety, and a steadier release of glucose (or sugar) into the bloodstream. The cookie has a high glycemic index with refined sugars, which go into the bloodstream quicker (causing insulin and blood sugar levels to spike), and do not create the same feeling of fullness (at least, not for long). Plus, cookies and other “fun foods” typically do not deliver the other vitamins and minerals found in apples (4, 5).

But oftentimes, they deliver something else -- pleasure.

While food is fuel, it is also a part of joyful living. It brings people together, it helps us celebrate family traditions, birthdays and holidays, and can be a source of comfort. Can you get pleasure from an apple? Absolutely. But there’s nothing like a warm, gooey chocolate chip cookie right out of the oven.

Give Yourself Permission

Some people feel if they give themselves permission to eat foods with sugar, they won’t be able to stop, they’ll just eat sweets all day, or they have extreme sugar cravings that they can’t seem to satiate.

If you experience similar situations, ask yourself these questions:

Have I eaten enough at my meals today?

It’s important to eat regular meals and snacks every three to five hours throughout the day to keep blood sugar and energy levels stable. A complete meal includes foods from each macronutrient category – carbs, fat and protein. And while energy needs are relative, meals should have somewhere in the ballpark of 500 to 1,000 calories (This is a general estimation and can vary, dependent on a person’s circumstances) (6). If your nutrient and/or energy (calorie) needs are not met because you are not eating enough, you will not be satisfied physically or mentally (at least not for long) and that’s when over-doing it can happen (7).

Am I eating primarily out of emotional needs?

While it’s okay in certain circumstances, it’s necessary to pay attention to why you are eating if you aren’t physically hungry. Is it simply because you want to share a treat with your friend? Or is to avoid uncomfortable feelings? Eating can be a way to comfort ourselves during stressful times when done so in a mindful way, but it should only be one way. There are a host of ways to practice self-care and to deal with uncomfortable emotions, including journaling, therapy, meditation and breath-work, time with family and friends, nature and movement (8).

Have I placed extreme, rigid rules on myself?

Depriving ourselves from our favorite foods (whether it has sugar or not) almost always makes us want them more, and may potentially lead to a binge on said foods. It can also lead to extra stress (and who needs that?), and disordered eating behaviors like preoccupation with food and social isolation. At its most extreme, food deprivation can lead to full-blown eating disorders.

On the contrary, when we allow ourselves regular access to all foods year-round (not just at birthdays or holidays), we can truly enjoy them in amounts that make us feel good, and then move on to more important things.[9] [10]

Bottom Line

Of course, a diet based around nutrient-dense foods, like those apples (and other fruits, veggies, whole grains, good fats like peanuts and avocados, etc.), is essential for overall health and disease prevention. But there is certainly still room for sugar.

Here’s to a summer of joyful eating!

Read more about balancing nutrition and pleasure here.

Learn the definition of normal eating here.

*Sugar levels must be monitored more closely for anyone with Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes than the general population, and they should seek guidance from a physician and registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in diabetes management.


  1. Blood Sugar. Medline Plus. https://medlineplus.gov/bloodsugar.html. Updated December 18, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017.
  2. Sugars. FDA.gov. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/InteractiveNutritionFactsLabel/factsheets/Sugars.pdf. Accessed December 22, 2017.
  3. Sugars. FDA.gov. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/InteractiveNutritionFactsLabel/factsheets/Sugars.pdf. Accessed December 22, 2017.
  4. Dietary Fiber. Medline Plus. https://medlineplus.gov/dietaryfiber.html. Updated November 3, 2017. Accessed December 22, 2017.
  5. Glycemic Index and Diabetes. Medline Plus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000941.htm. Updated December 5, 2017. Accessed December 22, 2017.
  6. Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex and Physical Activity Level. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-2/. 2015-2020. Accessed December 19, 2017.
  7. Binge Eating. MentalHealth.gov. https://www.mentalhealth.gov/what-to-look-for/eating-disorders/binge-eating. Updated August 22, 2017. Accessed December 12, 2017.
  8. Break the bonds of emotional eating. Medline Plus.gov. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000808.htm. Updated December 5, 2017. Accessed December 19, 2017.
  9. Mathieu J. What Should You Know About Mindful and Intuitive Eating? Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009:109(12):1982-1987. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2009.10.023.
  10. Karin, Katrina. Orthorexia Nervosa. National Eating Disorders.org. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa. Accessed July 18, 2017.

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