How Evil Is Sugar?

Sugar Balls

How evil is sugar? Let us count the ways. Or rather, sing along as Gary Taubes counts them. Taubes is an independent investigator in health policy, connected with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is of course deeply concerned with the obesity epidemic and is constantly exploring ways to put an end to it.

Taubes’ piece, called “Is Sugar Toxic?,” appeared in The New York Times, and it could have been called “Everything — and We Do Mean Everything — You Always Wanted to Know About Sugar.” So we will just hit a few of the major points, and hope that readers will be inspired to digest the entire article, because it could literally make a life-or-death difference.

Taubes talks about the work done by Dr. Robert Lustig in debunking the last 30 years of nutrition information in America, culminating with his conviction that sugar is indeed evil. The terminology comes from Dr. Lustig himself, who uses the word “evil” to describe sugar five different times in his YouTube lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” which has by now accumulated over 1,300,000 views — and there’s not a bosom or even a cute kitten in it.

When Dr. Lustig and Taubes speak of sugar, it’s inclusive: beet sugar, cane sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup, and they’re all poisonous to humans. Did you know that HFCS was originally touted as a healthful alternative to sugar? Then HFCS started getting a whole lot of bad press. And, now, food manufacturers have taken to bragging on their packaging that their products do NOT contain the corn syrup variety of sugar.

The sugar-versus-HFCS argument is truly a case of trying to define the “lesser of two evils.” It’s time to give up and admit we should not be ingesting either one. The argument against sugar, from whatever source, has pretty much rested on the empty-calories theory, the idea that it makes us fat without bringing along any good stuff like vitamins, minerals, etc. But there’s more to it than that. Taubes says,

Whether the empty-calories argument is true, it’s certainly convenient. It allows everyone to assign blame for obesity and, by extension, diabetes — two conditions so intimately linked that some authorities have taken to calling them ‘diabesity’ — to overeating of all foods, or underexercising, because a calorie is a calorie… Lustig’s argument, however, is not about the consumption of empty calories… It is that sugar has unique characteristics, specifically in the way the human body metabolizes the fructose in it, that may make it singularly harmful, at least if consumed in sufficient quantities.

This has to do with the way the liver works, among other things. If that organ is bombarded by a huge influx of fructose, it turns it into fat. Taubes notes,

This apparently induces a condition known as insulin resistance, which is now considered the fundamental problem in obesity, and the underlying defect in heart disease and in the type of diabetes, type 2, that is common to obese and overweight individuals. It might also be the underlying defect in many cancers.

Taubes talks about how an inconclusive FDA report has been misinterpreted and used extensively as some kind of exculpatory document, letting sugar off the hook, which is not the case at all. Also, and incidentally, the primary author of that report is now an advisor to the Corn Refiners Association, so what does that tell you? It might whisper the worrisome phrase “conflict of interest” into some attentive ears.

By the turn of the century, Americans were consuming 90 pounds of sugar a year, and obesity and diabetes were at an all-time high. Mere circumstantial evidence? Dr. Lustig and Taubes think not. They explain how all kinds of misconceptions came about, mistaken ideas that we now need to shake off because we know better. Taubes runs through the entire historical sequence of how dietary fat came to be blamed for results that should actually be chalked up to sugar intake, including the notorious Seven Countries Study which seems to have been so completely misunderstood as to be virtually useless.

Plus, there was some kind of personal animosity between various scientists that somehow leaked into the popular consciousness, and anybody with a bad word to say about sugar came to be regarded as a “tin foil hat” kind of crackpot. So, what changed? Taubes says,

Physicians and medical authorities came to accept the idea that a condition known as metabolic syndrome is a major, if not the major, risk factor for heart disease and diabetes… Having metabolic syndrome is another way of saying that the cells in your body are actively ignoring the action of the hormone insulin — a condition known technically as being insulin-resistant.

And then he goes on to explain exactly why insulin resistance is a very bad thing indeed, and although nobody is sure yet what causes it, the accumulation of fat in the liver looks like the probable culprit. As it turns out, even a skinny person can have a fatty liver and metabolic syndrome and all the myriad problems that result from it — and that is the smoking gun.

However, the occasional thin patient notwithstanding, obesity and metabolic syndrome go together like love and marriage, and horse and carriage. A ballooning midsection is a strong clue that a doctor might want to look for metabolic syndrome, which can wreak havoc on a person’s health and life.

If you want a lab rat to develop a fatty liver and insulin resistance, just feed it a lot of fructose. Stop feeding it fructose, and the fatty liver and insulin resistance cease. It works pretty much the same way in humans, and Taubes gives full details of that research, and also brings us up to date on current research that is underway in various places. For now, he concludes,

It very well may be true that sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, because of the unique way in which we metabolize fructose and at the levels we now consume it, cause fat to accumulate in our livers followed by insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, and so trigger the process that leads to heart disease, diabetes and obesity… You are more likely to get cancer if you’re obese or diabetic than if you’re not, and you’re more likely to get cancer if you have metabolic syndrome than if you don’t.

So — there you have it!

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Is Sugar Toxic?,” The New York Times, 04/13/11
Image by Adam Selwood, used under its Creative Commons license.

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