Context is everything, but social media grabs and headlines are generally not interested in the detail, it’s all about what gets the most clicks and likes. Eating cake will not make you a healthy person, but nor will it make you unhealthy.
Having some sugar in your diet in the context of a nutritionally adequate diet is unlikely to be an issue. If health issues do arise, genetics, stress, activity levels and a myriad of other factors need to be considered, not just a person’s sugar intake or even their overall diet for that matter. In fact, even if a person was eating copious amounts of sugary foods at the expense of nutrition, you still need to consider the many of other factors. Food alone will not harm us or heal us. Quitting sugar is unlikely to address all the aspects of self-care one might need to manage their health and almost certainly will not address the underlying reasons a person is having excess sugar, if indeed they are.
Regardless of whether you agree with me on this or not, you might be thinking “but I feel so much better when I cut out sugar!”. If you’re human, chances are you changed a number of others factors along side cutting out sugar. Perhaps you started paying more attention to your overall diet, you may have started cooking more from basic ingredients, increased your vegetables and decreased your intake of more highly processed food, you may even have started paying more attention to your appetite and be over eating less often, many people also increase their activity when they make a dietary change. When all these changes occur, it’s way too simplistic to say cutting out sugar is the reason you feel better. “But if cutting out sugar means I make these other changes, then surely it’s a good thing?” I hear you say. Yes and no. If you’re someone who can make a clear cut diet change and stick to it long-term without any repercussions socially, psychologically or to how you enjoy life, then no problem. But this is not most people, most people at some point find themselves wanting to enjoy the food they’ve sworn against and then when they do eat that food, feel bad about themselves in some way. This can then lead to a problematic relationship with food which may result in the pendulum swing between being “good” and being “bad”, feeling “addicted” or a lack of control around certain food, weight gain, weight cycling and even eating disorders. While most people don’t develop an eating disorder, many develop disordered eating behaviours.
With regard to any change in body weight with cutting out sugar, if a number of the other earlier mentioned changes occur along side the no sugar, can you be sure the weight change is simply due to the no sugar? Even if it was, will the change be maintained long-term? To this day we have no known dietary way to help people lose weight and keep the weight off long-term, almost everybody regains the weight at some point and the reasons people gain weight are always much more complex than just dietary.
Now that we’re on the topic of weight, let’s explore a little the reasons why focusing on diet and weight in relation to health can be so problematic. Just focusing on diet (or exercise) is always going to be insufficient with regard to addressing factors that affect weight, some of which are out of a person’s control and some of which can be attributed to behaviour. Even with those that may be attributed to behaviour, the things that drive human behaviour are complex and we over-simplify behaviour change with black and white, generic, dietary advice such as cut out sugar, reduce portions, eat less etc. While there may be some people for whom such dietary advice appear straight forward and maintainable, this is not true for the majority. Continuing to ignore other factors such as social justice, genetics, psychology and the many assumptions around health and weight, can lead to disordered eating behaviours and increased psychological stress (such as shame, anxiety and depression) which adversely impact health independent of diet or body weight. In fact, many of the things people do in an attempt to lose weight do not qualify as self-care. For example; crash diets, detox diets, fasting, going too long without food or not eating enough food (and putting the body into starvation mode), no longer taking pleasure from food and eating, not socialising as much for fear of eating the “wrong” food, exercising too intensely or too often, and the list goes on. Health is complex and layered and involves much more than attention to diet, fitness or weight.
So how can you manage your health (practise self-care) without restricting food you enjoy or focusing on weight loss? It is very possible with a non-diet/HAES approach.
Please note: Saying cake is healthy is not the same as saying eat as much cake as you want without any regard to nutrition or how your body feels. I actually prefer to say that cake is neither healthy nor unhealthy, it is just cake. I stated “cake is healthy” to do exactly what media tries to do, get people’s attention. Absolutely cake can be part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
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