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Is All Sugar Just Sugar?

Let’s say that for two weeks, you’re in one of two groups that can eat whatever you want from foods that are offered to you. If you’re in group one, most of the foods are ultra-processed (such as ice cream, frozen pizza, hot dogs, potato chips, sodas, and fruit drinks). If you’re in group two, most of the foods are unprocessed (such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and nuts}. And let’s say the meals are equivalent with regard to number of calories and amounts of sugar and other carbohydrates, fats, and salt. What would happen at the end of those two weeks?

Well, some scientists did this exact experiment (1). And at the end of those two, people in the first group, who ate the ultra-processed foods, gained an average of two pounds because they had eaten about 500 calories more per day than the people in the second group, who lost an average of two pounds.

By the way, the term “ultra-processed” refers to those foods that have undergone a large amount of industrial processing. If you look at the ingredient list on a package of food (and the fact that it’s packaged may be the first warning sign) and find stuff that you don’t keep in your kitchen – like high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, hydrolyzed proteins, emulsifiers, and stabilizers – then there’s a good chance you’re looking at ultra-processed food (2). 

The point is, ultra-processed foods are created to be irresistible. That’s why the potato chip advertisement dared, “Bet you can’t eat just one.” That’s the idea! These foods are designed to make you just want to eat more and more of the stuff. It’s hard to eat in a healthier way when convenient, delicious, unhealthy, cheap food is everywhere. As the authors of the book The Evolution of Obesity (3) put it, “We evolved on the savannahs of Africa; we now live in Candyland.”

In the author’s note of his powerful book, The Case Against Sugar,  Gary Taubes  writes, “The purpose of this book is to present the case against sugar . . . as the principal cause of the chronic diseases that are most likely to kill us . . . in the twenty-first century. . . . If this were a criminal case, The Case Against Sugar would be the argument for the prosecution” (4). It’s a strong case.

 In a nutshell:

  • Delicious processed foods that are rich in sugar are a major dietary contributor to obesity.

  • Foods high in sugar “feed” the brain’s reward centers, much like the way opiates do.

  • As a result, people crave—and may even show signs of being addicted to—these foods. 

  • On the other hand, the sugar in fruit, fructose, is absorbed slowly into the body because of all the fiber that’s in fruit. Fruit does not contribute to obesity or obesity-related diseases.

Don’t Kid Yourself with Fruit Juice

Do you like to start your day with a glass of orange juice? Or give your kids apple juice during the day? Here’s an astonishing fact: when you eat solid sugary food, eventually your brain says, “Enough already!” But not so with liquids. The brain simply doesn’t register “fullness” from sugar in drinks (5). This means that when you have a sugary beverage, you’ll still want to eat the same amount of food as if you hadn’t had that drink. To make matters worse, this effect seems to be even more pronounced in children and adolescents (6). And fruit juices have no fiber – just the concentrated sugar. The message is simple: Eat apples and oranges. Drink water.

In a previous post, Jae explained that her strategy for losing a hundred pounds was to lose one pound a week and to do that a hundred times. That made her goal seem attainable to her, rather than overwhelming. She figured out that by eating 500 fewer calories each day, she would lose about a pound a week. She actually exceeded that weight loss: in two years, she had lost 140 pounds. More importantly, because of her change in eating (and exercise) habits, she didn’t regain the weight. Incredible, no?

So go ahead and eat that slice of apple pie if you want it. Just know that eating one slice may make you crave a second. Know that you’ll be less full after the slice of pie than after you eat an apple. Know that your body and brain will feel better after a lifetime of apples than a lifetime (which is likely to be a shorter lifetime) of apple pie.

As for me, I love apple pie much, much more than I love apples. But I love the energy and vitality that comes with good health more than I love apple pie. Almost always. 


(1)Hall KD et al. Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell Metab 2019; 30(1):57-77.

(2)Monteiro CA et al. Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. Pub Hlth Nutr 2019; 22(5):936-41.

(3)Power ML, Schulkin J. The Evolution of Obesity. Johns Hopkins U Press, 2009.

(4)Taubes, Gary. The Case Against Sugar. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.

(5)Appelhans BM et al. Beverages contribute extra calories to meals and daily energy intake in overweight and obese women. Physiol & Behav 2013; 122:129-33.

(6)Jastreboff A et al. Altered brain response to drinking glucose and fructose in obese adolescents. Diabetes 2016; 65(7):1929-39.