Here’s why Paleo people avoid sugar

My Edited Eating newspaper column, in which I explore aspects of the Paleo lifestyle, weightloss and getting fit and healthy, appears in the Sunday edition of Weekend Argus. This one explores why sugar is not Paleo…

Bacon. Smoked salmon. Dried sausage and biltong. What do these have in common? They’re all on my list of the most unlikely sources of added sugar.

It was a tough lesson for me to learn, and it is one few of us do because we rarely pay attention to the labels that outline the nutritional value of the foods we’re putting into our bodies.

When I decided to cut grains, dairy, legumes and sugar from my diet, sugar was the hardest to eliminate, not necessarily because I had a sweet tooth, but because as I started to recognise its many different names, I realised how many foods contained it in some form.

So, the first step for me was to stop adding sugar to my meals and beverages; and later to start moderating my intake of foods that were high in naturally occurring sugars or carbohydrates, or which had sugars added during their production, for example fruits, starchy veg and commercially available cured meats.

There are natural replacements for refined sugars

And because I enjoy baking, I started looking for natural replacements for refined sugars. Thankfully, there are many available – but the interesting thing is that while their nutritional values may differ, the amount of glucose and fructose they contain are fairly similar. Here I’m talking about natural alternative sweeteners like honey, molasses and maple syrup.

But, let me explain what glucose and fructose are. In a nutshell, sugars are broadly divided into two categories: single sugars (like glucose, found in fruit and starchy carbs; fructose, found only in fruit; and galactose, found in dairy) and double sugars, which are combinations of these.

Finding an answer to the question: “Is sugar Paleo?” proved to be almost as hard as finding a way to completely eliminate sugar from my diet. If I were to come up with an answer, based on the research I’ve trawled through, it would simply be: “It depends.”

While the states unequivocally that: “Sugar is not paleo because it wreaks havoc with your blood sugar levels, undergoes a lot of processing, and doesn’t have much to offer your body in terms of nutrition”, according to it depends on what type of sugar you’re consuming, how much thereof and the state of the body of the person who’s ingesting the sugar.

Dr Sarah Ballantyne, aka The Paleo Mom, agrees, and explaining her opposition to high fructose sweeteners, like agave syrup, writes: “The fructose can only be metabolised by the liver, so the amount of toxic byproducts produced is disproportionately high compared to higher glucose content sugars.”

On the question of how much sugar is okay to consume, fitness nutrition expert Casey Thaler writes that high sugar diets can lead to insulin resistance, which can lead to obesity, and thatIf you consume too much sugar, you’re bound to experience hypoglycemia, commonly referred to as your sugar crash. This leaves your body craving more sugar – and the addictive process perpetuates.”

Which brings me to the question of sugar addiction and whether this is really “a thing”.

Look, I often describe my experience of weaning myself off sugar in addiction terms and there are even facilities where you can undergo treatment for sugar addiction. But, the research is inconclusive and in “Sugar addiction: the state of the science”, published in the European Science Journal in 2016*, Westwater, Fletcher and Ziauddeen write that despite the increasing popularity of the theory that sugar acts as an addictive agent, “we find little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans”. And the reason for this, they say, is that “most of the evidence is limited to the animal neuroscience literature” and that there is a “dearth of data on pure sugar consumption as we rarely consumer sugar in isolation”.

So what’s my advice? Limit your intake of sugar where possible. If it occurs naturally in a whole food like a fruit or vegetable, eat those in moderation, but avoid adding sweeteners to your food.


*Westwater, M., Fletcher, P. and Ziauddeen, H. 2016. “Sugar addiction: the state of the science”. European Journal of Nutrition. 55(2): 55-69.

Chantel Erfort

I'm a yoga teacher and health advocate who runs and enjoys the outdoors. Having previously lived a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle, nothing makes me happier than being able to share the benefits of including some movement, mindfulness and healthy eating into one's life.