With the average American consuming 2 to 3 pounds of sugar weekly, it’s not a shocker that 62% of adults and 34% of children in the U.S. today are overweight or obese. Sugar consumption has drastically escalated from 26 pounds per person per year to a massive 135 pounds just in the past twenty years. Now the obesity epidemic has reached the far corners of the earth. Japan, China, Korea, Australia, and throughout Europe–countries where some of the oldest, healthiest people of the world reside–are now experiencing their own overwhelming surges of obese and overweight populations.
Robert Lustig, a specialist in pediatric hormone disorders and a leading expert in childhood obesity at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine (one of the best med schools in the country) gave a lecture called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” that went viral on YouTube July of 2009. It has since been viewed well over 800,000 times, gaining new viewers at a rate of about 50,000 per month. Not bad for a 90-minute discussion about the biochemistry of fructose and human physiology, no?
If his stance on the matter of sugar is right, then our excessive consumption of it is the primary reason that the numbers of obese and diabetic Americans have skyrocketed in the past 30 years. But more than that, if Lustig is right, then sugar is the likely culprit of other chronic ailments widely considered to be diseases of Western lifestyles: heart disease, hypertension, and many common cancers.
So baking a cake for a party, sharing a hot chocolate with marshmallows by the fire, getting that venti extra-whip caramel macchiato from Starbucks, or that pint of ice-cream after a break-up are not just unhealthy indulgences but actually toxic and harmful, no matter how much love goes into the experience? It’s safe to affirm that Robert Lustig would vote “YES”. Armed with genuine expertise and a carefully accumulated and synthesized mass of evidence, Lustig feels that his findings are compelling enough to convict sugar. According to him, it is the enemy.
His argument is not about the consumption of empty calories but that sugar has unique properties (specifically the manner that the human body metabolizes the fructose in it) that may make it singularly harmful if consumed in sufficient quantities. In describing this concept, Lustig uses the phrase “isocaloric but not isometabolic” which means that we can eat 100 calories of glucose, say from a potato or bread and 100 calories of sugar (half glucose and half fructose) and they will be metabolized differently, impacting our bodies differently. The calories are the same, but the metabolic consequences quite differ. Glucose (from sugar and starches) is metabolized by every cell in your body, whereas your liver primarily metabolizes the fructose component of sugar and high fructose corn syrup.
and that high fructose corn syrup is “the most demonized additive known to man”.
“It’s not about the calories,” he says.
“It has nothing to do with calories. It’s a poison by itself.”
Here’s the thing: The condition called insulin resistance, now understood as the fundamental issue of Type 2 diabetes and is common to obese and overweight individuals, is induced by the liver converting sufficient quantities of fructose into fat. This may also be the underlying defect in many cancers. But not everyone resistant to insulin becomes diabetic. Some continue to secrete sufficient insulin to overcome their cells’ resistance to the hormone. However, chronically elevated insulin levels lead to harmful consequences on its very own– heart disease, higher triglyceride levels and blood pressure, lower levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and further worsening insulin resistance, a.k.a. metabolic resistance.
Now physicians and medical authorities have come to accept the idea that metabolic syndrome is a major, if not the major risk factor for diabetes and heart disease. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 75 million Americans suffer from metabolic syndrome. And for those who have heart attacks, metabolic syndrome will be the likely cause.
The National Institutes of Health are at the moment supporting disappointingly few clinical trials related to sugar and high-fructose corn syrup in the U.S. All of these studies are small and will last no more than a few months, one of which will be conducted by Lustig and his colleagues in UCSF, looking into what happens when obese teenagers consume no sugar other than that found naturally occurring in their daily fruits and vegetables. Another study will do the same with pregnant women to determine if their babies are born healthier and leaner.
Is sugar really as evil as Lustig claims it to be? It very well could be. Because of the particular way we metabolize fructose and at the levels that we consume it now, fat can accumulate in our livers, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome can follow, thus initiating the process that leads to the heart disease, obesity, and diabetes that has been slowly killing the people of this country and now, the world. Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup may be toxic, but they take some time to do big damage. It doesn’t happen overnight. But one thing is clear: Until long-term studies are done, we won’t know for sure. With the way things are going, there will have to be definitive answers very soon. And some pretty big changes must be made.
Find out more here.
Taubes, Gary. “Is Sugar Toxic?” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 13 Apr. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17Sugar-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&smid=fb-nytimeshealth.