By Kimberly Olson
Experts once believed that processed sugar wasn’t all that harmful. Its worst offenses seemed to be its “empty calories” and its contribution to tooth decay. Fast-forward to 2015, when the sweet stuff has become our latest food villain. It’s been called toxic, a poison. If you haven’t tried to cut down on sugar yourself, you likely know someone who has. But are waffles and cupcakes the real enemies?
The topic has generated plenty of controversy, with some saying the fears are overblown. But a growing body of research shows that our increasingly sugar-laden diets could be setting us up for a host of chronic health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and liver disorders. Some evidence even links overconsumption of sugar to cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression. While the discussion heats up, we’re learning more about how sugar affects the body—and are seeing some alarming health trends.
Sugar: one piece of the puzzle
In recent decades, several chronic health conditions have been on the rise. Nearly 27 million Americans now have heart disease, and another 29 million have diabetes, with half of all African American women and half of all Hispanic women and men expected to develop the condition in their lifetime. Even many children are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, something that was unheard-of just two decades ago. And nearly one-third of adults have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which can lead to liver failure.
Most experts point to diet as a major factor in all of these conditions, and probably no one has been sounding the alarm about sugar more than Robert Lustig, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist at University of California at San Francisco Medical Center. His YouTube video, Sugar: The Bitter Truth, with more than 6 million views, has prompted many to rethink their diets. It’s a trend that has been picking up steam: in 2014, Gallup found that nearly two-thirds of Americans were avoiding soda in their diets and more than half were avoiding sugar.
Lustig is quick to note that consumers must always consider sugar in context, however. “Sugar is spiked in 74 percent of items in the American grocery store, but sugar isn’t the only problem,” he explains. “I think processed food is the problem, and sugar is the marker for processed food.”
He then lists ten things that are wrong with processed foods—three things they have too little of and seven things they have too much of. “They have too little fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and micronutrients,” he says. “And they have too much sugar, trans fat, branched chain amino acids, omega-6 fatty acids, food additives, emulsifiers, and salt. For every one of those, we have correlation with the diseases that we are now experiencing, but we can’t show that they’re a cause. But there is one substance where we have causation—and that’s sugar.”
In October, Lustig and his research team published a breakthrough study in the journal Obesity showing the impact when a group of overweight African American and Hispanic children reduced their processed sugar intake to 10 percent of calories. In just nine days, they lowered their blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol, and also reduced the fat in their liver.
Lustig goes on to point out that sugar is harmful because it can cause specific alterations within the body. “When a carbohydrate—the glucose or fructose molecule—binds to the proteins, it makes them stiffen, so they don’t do their job,” he says. “Also, it promotes oxidative stress, which can cause damage to protein or lipids and causes cellular aging. Sugar is not dangerous because of its calories or because it causes obesity. Sugar is dangerous because it’s sugar, because of the biochemistry of the compound.”
Quantity and kind
The truth is that our cells need sugar for energy. The problem? While our ancient ancestors consumed sugar in the form of an occasional piece of fruit, our modern diet is packed with added sugar. And the body processes natural sugars like fruit sugar (fructose) and milk sugar (lactose) differently than it does processed sugar.
“Fruit has way more fiber than processed foods do,” Lustig says. “Fiber slows the speed at which sugar is released from the gut into the bloodstream.” Refined sugar, on the other hand, makes a fast journey into the blood, causing insulin and blood sugar levels to surge. And while eating a fiber-rich orange will make you feel full, eating processed sugar equal to the amount of natural sugar found in an orange won’t, which can lead to overeating. Many cereals, snacks, desserts, and sweetened beverages are loaded with added sugar, so people may get more than they can properly metabolize. Americans today consume 39 percent more sugar than they did in the 1950s—an additional 43 pounds per year. “The science has become painfully clear, and the food industry is obfuscating the facts,” says Lustig.
There’s no doubt that many of us are eating unhealthful amounts of sugar. Still, experts say that reducing sugar alone isn’t the answer. The best course of action is to move away from processed foods and toward whole foods like vegetables and fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, nuts and legumes, and skinless poultry and fish. Eating closer to the way your ancestors ate will naturally reduce your intake of refined sugar—and many other unhealthful ingredients—and take you on the path to a healthier future. DW
Sugar has been implicated as the primary culprit in a slew of chronic health ailments, from diabetes to obesity. But do we really have to give up that morning muffin?
Having a tough time conquering your sweet tooth? It doesn’t mean you have weak willpower. Researchers have found that foods that spike blood sugar are biologically addictive. But new federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that less than 10% of our daily calories come from sugar. To get your sugar consumption under control, follow these tips.
Ditch the sweet drinks Much of the sugar we consume is in drinks, so a quick way to reduce your intake is to cut out sugary drinks like sodas, juices, and sugary coffee beverages. If you need to use diet soda to slowly wean yourself off soda, do so, but make it your goal to quit completely over the course of two months.
Beware of hidden sugars
Sugar turns up in unexpected places. You’ll find it in bread, hot dogs, soup, crackers, spaghetti sauce, lunch meat, flavored yogurt, salad dressing, mayonnaise, and other foods. Unfortunately, nutrition labels don’t provide clear information about added sugars, because the line for “sugar” contains both natural and added sugars.
Scan ingredient labels for added sugars, which may be listed as corn sweetener, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, malt sugar, molasses, or sugar molecules ending in “ose” (such as dextrose, fructose, sucrose, and maltose). The Food and Drug Administration is now considering whether to make nutrition labels clearly indicate the amount of added sugars.
The best route to eat healthfully—and control your sugar intake—is to make your own meals. For healthy recipes, pick up The Blood Sugar Solution Cookbook by Mark Hyman, MD, director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine; The Fat Chance Cookbook by Robert Lustig, MD; or Sugar Free by Sonoma Press.
Sugar is not dangerous because of its calories. Sugar is dangerous because it’s sugar, because of the biochemistry of the compound.