Is sugar a drug? That may be debatable. What is less debatable is that sugar and its various incarnations are associated with weight gain/obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic liver disease, Alzheimer’s, various types of cancers, hypertension, tooth decay and cavities, and gout (a type of arthritis). In The Case Against Sugar, author Gary Taubes lays out the history of our sugar dependence, the food industry’s manipulation of research and marketing to hide or misdirect sugar’s horrible health impacts, and the mounting research that shows how sugar disrupts our metabolisms to be the number one culprit behind many of our modern illnesses and diseases. It’s an astounding book, well-researched, and compelling. But how much sugar is too much?
Misdirection, Obfuscation and the Bottom Line
Research after research study shows that when populations switch to a Westernized diet, they gain weight and start developing cancer, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart disease and so much more at swiftly rising rates compared to their previously low or negligible occurrances. For example, Taubes points out that breast cancer, relatively rare in Japan, jumps to the high Western rates within two generations when Japanese women move to America. Such documented changes in disease prevalence occurs across many cultures that move to Western countries. And what’s sets Western nations apart from others? Our diet, especially our sugar consumption ever since sugar went mainstream in the West starting in the 1850s.
While this change in health after moving to Western countries or adopting a Western diet was fairly well-known even back in the 1960s, little research was actually done on sugar and its health impacts. Why? When trying to figure out anything these days, it’s important to follow the money trail and Taubes does just that in The Case Against Sugar.
That money trail starts early on. Many people might think cotton was the main industry that used slaves but it was actually sugar that drove the slave trade to such extreme heights (not that cotton gets a pass). For decades sugar was a primary component of the US economy. As such, the sugar lobby was huge and influential. In The Case Against Sugar, Taubes details how the industry continuously undermined research into the ill effects of sugar well into this century by paying off researchers, ghost-writing studies and lobbying against any government action that could be hazardous to their bottom line. Their tactics predated Big Tobacco and some of their best marketing heroes would actually later work for the cigarette companies.
For instance, Big Sugar paid three Harvard scientists in the 1960s to play down the connection between sugar and heart disease and instead point the finger at saturated fat. These weren’t no-name individuals but highly influential leaders in the field whose work held sway sometimes for decades. Coca-Cola and candy makers made similar headlines for their forays into nutrition science, funding studies that discounted the link between sugar and obesity.
Why does this history matter? Because it warped the way we see diet and messed up our perceptions on what it means to eat healthy to this day, including dietary recommendations we are continuously given from the “experts” or regulatory agencies. Taubes calls out all the bad science done with regard to sugar and how it stunted our understanding of metabolism, weight gain, insulin, blood pressure, and even dementia. When science is bad, you can’t get good, reliable answers. Science is about hard research, putting forth theories, testing them again and again and trying to actively disprove them so that only the sound science sticks. When it comes to the medical profession, such rigor was largely absent with regard to nutrition’s link to common diseases and arguably remains so today thanks to lack of funding for the difficult, long-term studies that are needed to fully understand nutrition, diet and impacts on health that take decades to occur.
Eating healthy shouldn’t require a degree in biochemistry or a detective’s badge but when it comes to sugar’s role in our ill-health and modern diseases, you sadly might need both! Thankfully Gary Taubes lays out the history and the research – the good and the bad – in all its ugly glory.
Sugar is Everywhere and in Everything
We didn’t always have these modern illnesses. Diabetes was relatively rare, as was hypertension and most cancers. As Taubes documents, not until sugar’s entry into the average diet in the 1850s did modern diseases begin to rise and in eerie parallel with our increasing sugar consumption. Two hundred years ago, the average American ate only 2 pounds of sugar a year. Now we clock in at 152 pounds of sugar a year. The recommended limit for the daily dose of sugar for improved health is around 11 grams, or roughly no more than 5% of daily calorie intake. According to the World Health Organization, this number should never exceed 25 grams. Yet on average, Americans consume 126.4 grams of sugar daily (or over 42 teaspoons). That represents more than 10 times the lowest recommendation!
We’re drinking it daily. According to the CDC, 6 in 10 kids and 5 in 10 adults drink sugar-sweetened beverages every day. This can be anything from sodas and fruit drinks to sugar-sweetened teas, coffees and energy drinks. When it comes to sugar sweetened beverages, it isn’t just the additional calories that are problematic. A diet high in added sugar – particularly liquid sugar – has been associated with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome and with higher rates of Type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and cardiovascular difficulties. And some research suggests that high-fructose corn syrup, the sweetener used in most soda, is particularly associated with increased body fat.
We eat it in everything. Sugar as a part of our junk food culture began in the late 1800s with soda but started chugging along with candies and ice cream around the turn of the 1900s. Sugar-sweetened cereals ramped up consumption further and the inclusion of chocolate bars in rations for soldiers during WWII addicted an entire generation. Meanwhile, sugar was used as preservatives in jams and jellies to make fruit last longer, then became a preservative in other foods which is why you’ll see high fructose corn syrup as an ingredient even in sushi at your grocery deli (surprisingly). Sugar gives that golden look, mouth feel and perfect texture to most of our processed foods like cookies, cakes, crackers and bread products. Various sugars sweeten our chocolate milk and our yogurts but that’s just for starters. Turn over almost any food on the grocery shelf and you’re likely to read some sort of added sugar in its ingredient list.
You may be familiar with table sugar but there are tons: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, and sucrose. And we use them all.
Sick on Sugar
Back when we ate only 2 pounds a year rather than the 3 pounds a WEEK we do today, cases of diabetes were rare as Taubes chronicles. Now, 9.4% of the adult American public is diabetic and 33.9% are prediabetic. Childhood type 1 diabetes rates have skyrocketed, as have childhood obesity figures. We’re getting sicker and sicker and the research shows that the incidences of cancer and other modern diseases are only increasing. Taubes points out that sugar usually got avoided in the research time and time again thanks to the influence of the sugar industry or would perversely be hailed as healthy or at worst, a vehicle for empty calories.
Now the medical field is starting to do real research and the findings on sugar aren’t pretty. Sugar hits the metabolism, affecting our insulin and cholesterol levels – making it culprit number one for diabetes and heart disease. Insulin resistance, the condition in which a person becomes insensitive to the effects of insulin and has to produce more insulin to overcome that insensitivity, ultimately leads to diabetes if it goes on long enough. Here’s where cancer comes into play. Many types thrive on high insulin availability. This insulin problem also makes sugar culprit number one for hypertension (high blood pressure) since high insulin levels have been shown to cause blood thickening (which itself is a prime issue in many illnesses like deep vein thrombosis and varicose veins). Alzheimer’s, often called type-3 diabetes, is also linked to sugary diets and obesity.
Taubes goes through a laundry list of health issues that revolve around our modern, over-sugared diet and points out how this radical departure from our prior eating habits is causing equally radical problems in our health, some of which are causing intergenerational problems as insulin-resistant mothers give birth to increasingly insulin-resistant children. It’s a falling domino of ill-health since we seem to be becoming more and more insulin resistant with each generation.
We should understand therefore that food isn’t just calories. It’s chemistry. What we put in our mouths will affect our biology – from our metabolism to our hormones to our moods and so much more. Sugar may have a low number of calories per gram but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an outsized impact on our health or the health we’re imparting to the next generation.
So How Much Sugar Is Too Much?
Taubes raises this question and the answer is unsettling because there is none. The ill effects of sugar tend to take time to develop and don’t appear equally in the entire population. After all, not everyone who loves sugar develops diabetes. Sugar’s impact, being long-term, is difficult to grasp and hard to research since the needed long-term studies would run in the billions and governments won’t fund them. So knowing real, hard numbers with sugar is difficult, though short-term studies are illuminating. Back when we ate 2 pounds a year, we seemed to have been fine. At 40 pounds a year, we were getting sick. 2 to 40 is a big difference. What number is safe? Is any number really safe? The fact that symptoms take a while to show and aren’t always the same for everyone just compounds the problem.
Taubes likens eating sugar to smoking cigarettes. Not everyone who smokes a pack a day will get lung cancer but enough people will. Others will develop bronchitis or have only yellowed fingers for example. How many cigarettes are too much? One a week? One a day? What would you tell your child about cigarettes and how many they should have? Sugar, argues Taubes and so does the growing body of research, is very much the same. Immediately, you might not feel anything but the rush. Over time, you might develop the worst of its diseases.
Sugar isn’t a necessity any more than cigarettes or alcohol and perhaps we should think of it that way despite our love for it and its widespread cultural celebration. Sugar isn’t going to disappear off shelves or out of products anytime soon. Given the FDA’s cow-towing to the sugar lobby for decades, it’s up to us to decide in a very adult way how much sugar we should consume and how much we should let our kids consume.
Pick up The Case Against Sugar. It’s a fascinating in-depth read into the sugar lobby, the history of sugar in modern life, how bad science can mislead generations of doctors and nutritionists, and just how terrible sugar is for us.
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