A Sweet Middle Path


Sugar, specifically white refined sugar, has gotten a bad rap.

While I typically abide by a “to each their own” approach to food, it seems that this era is abundant in celebrities and influencers ‘coming out’ with their sugar-free lifestyle.

To many this seems logical and saintly. To me this is yet another extreme shift of the dietary pendulum that leaves people swinging between restriction and over consumption, more obsessed with food and less at ease in life

Out of a desire to offer a different perspective and perhaps provide a middle path, I bring you my thoughts on sugar. This post isn’t for the nutrition police who have, for the time being, made up their mind. This is for those of you lost in the middle of a world that plies you with sugary sodas and tells you it’s poison at the same time.

Here are six thoughtful ‘spoonfuls’:

1. A sweet role model on the sweet middle path...

Henry Ware. “Hal” to most. Grandpa, or more often Bapa, to me.

At 91, my grandfather lived alone, remained active, and, for his age, was very healthy. He also ate dessert nearly everyday of his life. He lived to be 96. [Cue needle scratch]

When I hear of people saying sugar is poison I reminisce about the lemon meringue pie I used to bake with my grandmother. It was so delicious.

2. When there is nothing to rebel against…

In my experience, when I have something to rebel against, I rebel. When I have nothing to rebel against, I’m free and traveling an easeful middle path. A no-sugar rule would, and has, in my more restrictive days, made me straight-up bonkers. Being a freedom-junkie is what has kept me from being a sugar-junkie.

3. Play food has a place…

Here’s an excerpt from a favorite book of mine, Intuitive Eating:

“Sometimes you have a desire for food that has no nutritionally redemptive powers. We call this food play food. We prefer this term to one of the most commonly used terms to describe what’s considered unhealthy foods–junk food. The term junk food implies that there is no intrinsic value in this food–in fact, that it probably should be thrown in the garbage can. But we feel that this thinking is unwarranted. There are times when a piece of red velvet cake or a stick of licorice is just the food that will satisfy your taste buds. And eating these types of foods doesn’t mean you are an unhealthy eater.”

I have often found important, health-promoting, value in foods with little nutritional value.

4. The secret ingredient...

Food is way more than just a sum of it’s macro and micronutrients. Michael Pollan calls this misconception nutritionism. The truth is that there are intangibles in food that we can’t quantify. For example, why does, for some of us, our mother’s version of a dish taste so much better than our own? The answer is something we can’t see under a microscope or write into a recipe. Food, if we pay attention, has (or doesn’t have) soul to it. A factor often ignored when we eliminate whole categories of food.

5. Pleasure as a food group…

Speaking of intangibles in food. I’ve found that just like I can eat a diet deficient in fat or Vitamin C, I can be deficient in pleasure. I’ve learned to treat pleasure like a food group with a hearty dose of daily servings. This is how I feel most well-fed and this sometimes includes sugar.

6. We’re all moderators…

Some people argue that people can be divided into moderators and abstainers - people who have just a little of something and people who can’t. I balk at this argument.

In my experience, and the science supports this, an inability to “have just a little” of something is a result of the pendulum swing that occurs for everyone where there is some sort of psychological belief that the item is scarce (“Remember, you only get to eat this when you’re on vacation”) or shouldn’t be eaten (“Good thing no one is here to see you stuffing your face with this naughty food”). When we truly feel free to eat whatever we want, whenever we want, in any quantity we want we naturally find that we don’t overdo much. In my experience, overdoing is a result of compensation for some form of restriction. Moderation is the result of being free and deeply trusting oneself.

7. Information overload...

Lest you think I’m clueless about nutrition and sugar's effect on our bodies, rest assured that I know my omega-3’s from my omega-6s. At the height of my own eating disorder I was a walking nutritional encyclopedia. I also spent three years spent earning my master’s degree in holistic health education where I studied everything from the USDA guidelines to Ayurvedic eating approaches; raw food to the Weston A. Price approach; Chinese medicine to eco-political food systems.

In the end, I believe we suffer from a dangerous mix of information overload, food paranoia, and body disconnection.

Bottomline: I don’t want to live a life without sugar. I’m all for taking into account what my body and our planet need in order to be healthy, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my mental health for it. I also think the answer is always somewhere in shades of gray, not in the black and white approach of forgoing sugar all together. Turns out I don’t have to. Thank goodness. So this is the path I have chosen: turn down the noise, ignore fads of the moment, aim for a middle path (all things in moderation, including moderation), restrict nothing, listen to my body, pay attention to the seasons and where my food comes from, and deeply enjoy sweet foods whenever I want them.