52 Healthy Habits: A Rant on Sugar, Cocaine and Artificial Sweeteners

One thing I love about writing a blog is it that it gives me a chance to air my grievances (even when it isn't Festivus!) to no one in particular and everyone on the internet all at the same time. 

When things bother me, I usually tell my husband, but when I start to notice his eyes glaze over I know it's time to get it out in writing. He even told me once, "You need to blog about that because I stopped listening 10 minutes ago." Hah. At least he's honest. 

I am not usually someone who rants. I usually keep things that bother me bottled up inside until it explodes...like a normal person. Just kidding. 

Last Friday we had a health fair at my corporate marketing job. It was a half day event when speakers came in to educate us with seminars and they served a delicious healthy lunch. It's a great benefit and I usually look forward to hearing speakers on various topics. It gets me out from my cubicle for a few hours and immersed in the world I love, heath and fitness. 

scenes from our healthy lunch - colorful mini peppers.

scenes from our healthy lunch - colorful mini peppers.

One of the speakers was a doctor. When you have some letters behind your name and a book under your belt you command a certain amount of respect and authority. Everything started out great. He showed us a sugar cube that equaled four grams of sugar. He taped plastic baggies of these sugar cubes to popular food products that are often marketed as healthy options. That box of organic bran cereal? Six cubes (24 grams of sugar) per serving...and watch out, that serving size is only 3/4 cup. So-called healthy yogurt? As many sugar cubes as a can of Coke. It can be eye-opening for someone who never really thought about hidden added sugars in their diet.

It was a great visual representation of the amount of sugar in processed foods and how, if we don't pay attention, the sugar adds up quickly and can hurt our health and body composition. It is a an important message that most people need to hear, but this is where things went south, in my opinion. 

He then recommended to replace the sugar in our diet with artificial sweeteners (he said he preferred to call them sugar substitutes) and not to eat any foods with more than 2 grams of sugar per serving, and this is where he really lost me....not even fruit.

He suggested that when you are in the produce section of the grocery store to think of bananas and grapes (and sometimes apples) as bad and berries as good. My takeaway from his message was that all sugar is bad and artificial sweeteners are the solution to the sugar problem because they do not spike blood sugar or raise insulin levels. 

He said sugar causes the same reaction in the brain as cocaine. Message received doc, Cocaine bad = Fruit bad. 

Look, I'm no doctor. This guy is clearly educated. He went to medical school and treated cancer patients. I respect that level of commitment and service. I went to a community college and have some personal training and nutrition certs. He obviously is far ahead on the education front. But I have something he has seemed to miss: Common sense, or at least context. 

It is irresponsible to tell the general population that fruit is bad and artificial sweeteners are the solution to the sugar problem. Yes, bananas are high in natural sugars but they are also nutrient-rich and have benefits. Are there better things you could eat? Maybe. But is it the worst choice? Absolutely not. Is natural sugar as bad as cocaine? Let's not be ridiculous. (To be fair, he didn't say that directly.) No matter what your health and fitness goals are, a banana, a cupped handful of grapes or an apple is generally a good, healthy choice for most people.

I like to look at all foods on a continuum. What food choice would be a little bit better? What food choice would be worse? If we are always inching towards making healthier, better choices, we are on the right track. We have to get away from all the all-or-nothing, it's either good or it's bad mentality. 

NUTRITION INFO

One small-to-medium sized banana (100g) contains about 89 calories, 1.10g protein, 0.33g of fat, 22.84g of carbohydrates, 2.60g of fiber, and 12.23g of sugar.

Bananas are rich in potassium, vitamin C, and manganese.

 

We can get into a discussion about high level athletes or physique stage competitors with body composition goals and how eliminating certain foods (temporarily!) can help them meet these aesthetic goals. However, in the context of our health fair, we are talking to office workers who are sedentary for at least eight hours a day looking to improve their lifestyle and eating habits. For general health and weight loss, moderate amounts of fruit is A-ok.

Most people eat a poor diet and a piece of fruit would be an improvement on a daily snack. Herein lies the problem: If you label fruit as bad, and you already know that a Snickers bar is bad, maybe you would just choose the snickers bar because it tastes better. After all, they are both bad, right? Um. No. 

When people start to label food as good or bad it causes all kinds of problems. It can lead to nutrient deficiencies and maybe worse, disordered eating or thinking. Especially when things get labeled as bad that are, in fact, nutritionally beneficial. For health (body and mind) we should aim to eat a wide variety of whole, minimally processed foods that we enjoy, in proper portions.

We are not talking about the nuisances of food intolerances, diabetes or other outliers. My problem is telling a room full of office workers that fruit is a generally a bad choice for them.

Nutrition isn't as hard as the industry would have us believe. It's just that there are so many mixed messages, that people start to get confused. Most people don't need to worry about the possible downside of eating a piece of fruit because they are still drinking soda, eating processed foods or restaurant meals on a regular basis and sleeping five hours a night. Let's work on improving the basics before we start talking about advanced diet strategies. 

On the subject of artificial sweeteners, I don't mind artificial sweeteners...wait for it...in moderation. Like anything else, what you do every day is more important than what you do occasionally. I happen to like the taste of Diet Coke, probably because I drank it most of my adult life. These days, I don't drink it often, but when I am craving a Coke, I go for the diet option. If I preferred the taste of regular Coke I would go that route. It is an occasional indulgence, not an everyday activity. For me, it's no problem.

I don't, however, recommend artificial sweeteners as a solution to your sugar problem. They are probably fine for most people in moderation, but we should be aiming to move towards whole natural foods whenever possible. If the problem is too much sugar, let's fix the problem by reducing added sugar intake (mostly by reducing processed foods), not just band-aid it by replacing all of our sugar intake with artificial sweeteners. 

I am all about balance, finding that sweet spot of sanity and sustainability. What healthy foods do you enjoy eating? Eat more of those. What not-so healthy foods make you feel like crap later? Eat less of those. Learn to tune in to your body's natural signals. If a less-than-healthy (notice I didn't say 'bad') food brings you joy, then definitely enjoy it in moderation without guilt. It sounds overly simplistic, but when nutrition is so far off track, it's exactly what we need: simplicity. 

I'm no smarty pants doctor but if you like bananas, go ahead and eat them. 

For my 52 Healthy habits this week, I encourage you to eat a piece of healthy, natural fruit every day this week, limit added sugars and artificial sweeteners and oh yeah, don't use cocaine. How's that for health advice? Who wants to hire me to speak at their health fair? My presentation will be called 'A Rant on Sugar, Cocaine and Artificial Sweeteners' Hah. 

Seriously. Need help with your nutrition strategy? Tired of dieting? Want help making healthy choices part of your lifestyle while staying sane and balanced? My nutrition and lifestyle coaching program begins in June, get on the list for a big pre-sale discount. 

Do you agree? I'd love it if you would share.

Need to catch up on the 52 healthy habits series? 

52 HEALTHY HABITS SERIES

week 1: Early to Rise
week 2: Track calories
week 3: Macro cycling
week 4: Morning pages (journaling)
week 5: Stop the scrolling (reading instead of social media)
week 6: Be a good student (take time for learning) 
week 7: Strength Training 15 minutes per day   
week 8: Eat more protein
week 9: Take a coffee break (break from caffeine)
week 10: Mindful eating
week 11: Create and follow a sleep ritual
week 12: 10 Easy ways to eat more vegetables

Coach Lea

I am a NASM personal trainer and RRCA adult distance running coach that specializes in strength training for runners. I offer in-person training in the Shredshed, online training and Fit to Run bootcamps. If you are interested in a more in-depth running or strength training plan, please contact me. Have questions? I'd love to help. 

Are you a Dallas/Fort Worth local? Join us for my free Saturday morning bootcamps

While I am a certified personal trainer, I am not your personal trainer. Since I don't know your exercise abilities, injury background or medical history, please see your doctor before beginning any new exercise program. This is an opinion blog. No information in this blog is intended to be taken as medical advice or prescription. Please see your doctor and/or registered dietitian for any health concerns.