Sugar: Much Worse Than We Thought

February 7, 2012 · 42 comments

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Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist has become a major voice for revealing the dangers of excessive sugar consumption. Lustig, MD, in chorus with Laura Schmidt, PhD, MSW, MPH, and Claire Brindis, DPH, colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), have made some compelling statements, in a position paper that was recently published in the February 2nd issue of the journal Nature. They conclude that sugar (sucrose, fructose and high fructose corn syrup) is to blame for the increase in chronic disease worldwide and suggest that it should be regulated much like alcohol and cigarettes.

Chronic debilitating diseases are on the rise worldwide

According to a United Nations report, non-communicable diseases now pose a greater health burden worldwide than infectious diseases. In the United States, 75 percent of health care dollars are spent treating chronic non-communicable, diseases and the disabilities associated with them. More people are dying from “lifestyle” diseases with tobacco,alcohol and diet as the central risk factors.

Is over consumption of fructose to blame?

In a previous post about sugar and cancer, I talked about Lustig’s research with fructose as revealed in an interview with Gary Taubes that was presented in The New York Times Magazine article called “Is Sugar Toxic?”. Lustig presents his ideas in a Youtube video which at this point has had almost 2 million views.

Lustig explains that fructose is metabolized in the liver while the glucose portion of the table sugar molecule (sucrose) is metabolized by all the cells of the body. Fructose causes the liver to work harder and this is damaging and is the driving force behind metabolic syndrome.

If you take sugar/fructose as a liquid (as in fruit drinks and soda) it will reach the liver faster and it will have an even greater detrimental effect.  Research has shown that in rats when fructose hits the liver with sufficient speed and quantity, the liver will convert much of it to fat. If this occurs continually, it will induce insulin resistance — a condition that is now considered the fundamental problem in obesity and which leads to heart disease and type II diabetes.

Sugar Feeds Cancer

Science suggests that this consumption of fructose leads to tumor growth.  Many researchers  believe that it is sugar in the modern diet that provokes cancer. Current studies have shown that having insulin resistance actually promotes tumor growth, because in this condition the body has to secrete more and more insulin and/or insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) and these chronically elevated insulin levels support malignancy.

Additionally, research recently published in the journal Cancer Research, supports the work showing that fructose is a major player in driving the growth and proliferation of cancer cells. In this case they studied pancreatic cancer, a fierce and rapid cancer. They found that the tumor cells used fructose for cell division, provoking rapid growth and spread of the cancer.

Sugar may be just as dangerous as alcohol

In the Nature article, a handy chart was published that compared the effects of sugar with alcohol. It shows that 66% of the damaging effects of chronic exposure to ethanol are exactly the same as the effects of chronic fructose exposure.

Sugar Is Much Worse Than Just Empty Calories That Make You Fat

In an article, ‘Societal Control of Sugar Essential to Ease Public Health Burden,’ published by UCSF the researchers point out that sugar consumption is clearly detrimental in the following ways, beyond just being empty calories that makes people fat and diabetic.

  • Fructose consumption changes metabolism.
  • Fructose consumption raises blood pressure.
  • Fructose consumption alters the signaling of hormones.
  • Fructose consumption causes significant damage to the liver.

Damage to the liver is the newest effect of sugar on the human body and the least studied. That means, that it may turn out to be a major player.

The researchers argue,

Worldwide consumption of sugar has tripled during the past 50 years and is viewed as a key cause of the obesity epidemic. But obesity…may just be a marker for the damage caused by the toxic effects of too much sugar. This would help explain why 40 percent of people with metabolic syndrome — the key metabolic changes that lead to diabetes, heart disease and cancer — are not clinically obese.

Lustig also states, “There are good calories and bad calories, just as there are good fats and bad fats, good amino acids and bad amino acids, good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates…but sugar is toxic beyond its calories.”

The Solution

The solution is challenging to say the least. The authors believe that the public must be better informed about the emerging scientific information on sugar and it’s effects.

Dr. Laura Schmidt, professor of health policy at UCSF’s IHPS and co-chair of UCSF’s Community Engagement and Health Policy Program said,

There is an enormous gap between what we know from science and what we practice in reality… in order to move the health needle, this issue needs to be recognized as a fundamental concern at the global level.

Her program focuses on bridging academic research, health policy, and community practice to improve public health. They are not advocating major intervention by the government. They suggest increasing people’s choices of foods that are not loaded with with sugar by making them cheaper and easier to get.

The methods used to reduce tobacco and alcohol consumption may become models for addressing the sugar problem. Sales, taxes, controlling access and tightening licensing requirements on vending machines and snack bars that sell high sugar products in schools and workplaces may also be suggested.

 Challenges

When it comes to changing how “food” is grown, manufactured, distributed and consumed in this country, it may take a lot more than a few scientists and concerned researchers speaking out.

We have a congress that can’t even figure out how to make a school lunch healthier and who considers HFCS ketchup a vegetable. They are influenced by lobbyists for the food companies… I think change is a long time coming.

What do you think? Should we regulate sugar like tobacco and alcohol? Leave a comment and let me know!

For more information about the effects of sugar consumption on depression, head over to The Healthy Home Economist to read, Depression: Your Brain on Sugar.

Resources:

This post is shared at: Real Food Wednesday, Whole Food Wednesday, Health 2Day, These Chicks Cooked, Mommy Club, Creative Juice Thursday, Thriving on Thursday, Full Plate Thursday, Simple Lives Thursday, Pennywise Platter, Freaky Friday, Fresh Bites Friday, Fight Back Friday. Sunday School, Seasonal Celebration, Sugar-Free Sunday, Monday Mania, Real Food 101, Meatless Monday, Melt in Mouth Monday, Homestead Barnhop, Mouthwatering Monday, Tasty Tuesday Tidbits, Hearth & Soul Hop, Traditional Tuesday

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Solveig February 8, 2012 at 5:58 am

I do know that in Denmark that they do regulate certain foods. One the whole, Scandinavians have long lifespans because they eat healthier, and exercise more. It’s not unusual for people in their 80’s still active enough to go cross country skiing.

What is it about Americans that they can’t “just say no” to sodas, snack foods, burgers, alcohol, tobacco, etc. Lack of constraint? Selfishness? Ignorance? Then after eating all that, go to the fitness center and work out, thinking that it’ll counter all the bad that they ate. There really are folks out their who do just that.

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2 Mary February 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Why can’t we say no? Partly b/c sugar is addicting – like heroin, and very hard to resist and partly b/c our government is corrupt and doesn’t really care about us. Sad, but true. Regulating it wouldn’t help; people just need to be better educated. The only “hope” we have to is to get the corporations out of our politicians’ pockets so that the truth can come out and we can start to live healthier lives. Sadly though, pharmacy companies don’t want us to be healthy because then they don’t make money. Truly, it is a disheartening to see how the political game is played here.

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3 Hanna February 8, 2012 at 8:43 pm

the other reason from what i understand is that junk food is much cheaper.

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4 Jo @ Jo's Health Corner February 12, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Scandinavians also educate about the health effect of eating too much sugar. When my son was in public day care in Sweden at the age of 2 years they only served water and fruit for snacks..My husband thought it was funny to see the kids in town run to the local market on Saturdays to get there weekly candy, (Saturday is promoted as the day to eat candy)..

I don’t know if the Scandinavians would be better at holding back and not eat junk if it hadn’t been for the fact that it is in the government’s interest to keep children and adults healthy since they are providing socialized medicine. Dental treatments are free for children so the government pushes hard to educate children in not eating sweets everyday. Candy is not allowed in school and kids are only allowed to bring fruit as a snack..(It may have changed some since I lived there a few years ago)..

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5 Jill February 12, 2012 at 8:57 pm

It seems like many other governments protect their citizens way better than ours!

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6 Jill February 8, 2012 at 9:30 am

Having just watched King Corn (a documentary on how genetically modified corn is truly the foundation crop to our entire food supply), my thought is that rather than regulating sugary foods, the government needs to stop subsidizing corn crops. If there were a more normal amount of corn grown in our country (which would amount to only a tiny fraction of what we have now), maybe livestock would spend more time on pasture, making their meat and milk far healthier, and HFCS would no longer be the ultra cheap product that it is and would cease to be in EVERYTHING processed. Just a thought.

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7 Jill February 8, 2012 at 10:08 am

Hi Jill,
Subsidies are a big problem. Yours is a good thought!

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8 Cara Hembd February 8, 2012 at 10:11 am

This is a great article!! If only more people would listen. My family has been off of all cane sugar, fructose…etc for a few years. We use Honey, Agave and Palm sugar but only sparingly to make a dessert once a week or so. Amazingly enough it is possible to eat completely sugar free and not be deprived, but it does take some work on the mother’s side because they will try to trick you with the terminology on packaged food. We recently stopped into a health food store for a snack and got a cookie that had the ingredient Succanut…..be just assumed it was some kind of nut. Big mistake!! Anyway thanks for the great post!!

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9 France @ Beyond The Peel February 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm

What a thorough look on the subject. I believe whole heartedly in the toxicity of sugar after watching Lustig’s talk and looking into the research. It’s great that you’ve put so much of the information in one place.

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10 Melissa February 8, 2012 at 1:23 pm

No. i don’t think they should regulate it. Maybe an organization can have a public service announcement – you know those adds they have on tv, radio, etc that tell us how bad sugar is… that’s the better way to do it… just because I lean toward libertarianism and i don’t want the government haven’t too much of a say so… that’s all.

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11 Sue February 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm

I agree with Melissa. The government can inform and educate, but regulation should be a last resort – saved for things that are immediately life-threatening. Think of all the people that want to ban or regulate saturated fats “for the public good”. I’m thankful that this has never come to pass. The government can help by requiring full disclosure from the food manufacturers and the rest of us can vote with our wallets.

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12 Jill February 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm

I certainly wouldn’t want them to regulate saturated fats. People are so indoctrinated against saturated fats that they think eating something with lots of sugar is fine just because it does not have saturated fats! People need full disclosure about the dangers of sugar consumption, just like with cigarettes and alcohol.

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13 Mindy @ Too Many Jars in My Kitchen! February 9, 2012 at 12:34 pm

I also agree with Melissa. Since what I consider to be healthy and what the government considers to be healthy often differ quite a lot, I wouldn’t want to have regulations on food. Education would be a much better route to go!

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14 Amy J. February 8, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Just watched the video…life changing! It’s a very tangled web. As Jill mentioned, to come out against HFCS, the government would have to stop subsidizing corn (and soy for that matter) so it’s not added in any form imaginable to processed foods. I don’t see that happening anytime soon. And then, of course, you have big pharma making a killing on the drugs people are taking as a result of their diet. It’s going to take a grass roots effort…education and taking a stand in our homes, schools and communities.

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15 holli February 8, 2012 at 11:52 pm

YES!

We need more than education. we need the same psychologists who work for the big food corporations on marketing to switch sides and help Americans believe they can and want to change.

Even better, we need everyone to start taking initiative and responsibility for their health. I feel like I am preaching to the choir on that note!

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16 vanessa February 9, 2012 at 9:41 am

Sugar by far is the hardest food vice to moderate. I’ve given up wheat and dairy for my own health issues and still can’t get around the sugar issue. btw, I don’t believe there is any free ride with sweeteners. Liquid sugar and HFCS are easy to avoid but is that good enough? Agave and palm sugar, though not as bad as table sugar, are still effecting the chemistry in your body adversely. Fresh fruit is loaded with fructose after all. Which brings me to the question, how much is OK? I can’t take sweet things away from my children completely but I’d love to know if there is a guide for arriving at a ‘safe’ amount.

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17 Dawn @ Small Footprint Family February 9, 2012 at 1:30 pm

What a great post! The American Heart Association says we should only have about 8 teaspoons of added sugar a day. That’s less than sugar than the amount in a single cup of store-bought yogurt!

Sugar is also causative in the massive Alzheimer’s epidemic we are experiencing. Doctors have started coining Alzheimer’s as “Diabetes Type 3,” because it is basically insulin resistance in the brain that leads to metabolic dysfunction in the brain, and permanent brain cell death. They say it takes 10-20 years for AD to develop, so prevention of this most inhumane, ugly and 100% fatal mental disease requires a very long-term dietary approach.

Given the enormous cost to families and the nation for the care of people with Alzheimer’s–not to mention heart disease, cancer, diabesity, etc.–I definitely think sugar should be taxed, corn should be de-subsidized, and PSAs about the dangers of sugar consumption should be aired liberally.

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18 Samantha February 10, 2012 at 2:41 am

Hello,
I was just wondering, there is no mention of whether or not your body responds differently to Fructose contained naturally in fruit and the Fructose most commonly consumed as a food additive. This could be confusing for some and thousands of tribes and ancient civilizations have existed on fruit as a major staple in their diet. Any clarification?

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19 jean February 10, 2012 at 10:47 am

It would be nice if there were informational “ads” on television and radio concerning sugar and maybe the government should put warning labels on food products containing dangerous sugars. It’s going to take quite a while to fight the food companies on this sugar deal, so it’s education to the public about the side effects of table sugar that may help hit the food conglomerates in the pocketbook enough for them to take notice and make better changes.

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20 jean February 10, 2012 at 10:52 am

By the way, sugars in fruits and white table sugars are used by the body differently. Our bodies know what to do and how to use natural sugars that come in fresh foods. That kind of sugar is different from unnatural processed sugars.

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21 Elisabeth @ Old Thyme Kitchen February 13, 2012 at 9:24 pm

I absolutely feel that we should not regulate away sugar, no matter how bad it is. After that, they’ll regulate away salt and cholesterol, despite the fact that our bodies *need* salt and cholesterol. Just give us freedom.

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22 Debbie @ Easy Natural Food February 14, 2012 at 5:49 pm

Great article Jill (only just catching up on some reading now!) I’m glad that I have drastically cut down on my sugar consumption from a few years ago……but sugar is a temptation that I have to work daily to resist!

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23 Melanie February 15, 2012 at 9:41 am

When I committed to giving up sugar a few years ago it almost seemed impossible as white sugar is in nearly everything. Now I am so happy I made that choice as my emotions are more balanced, I have more energy, and I don’t crave super sweet treats. Thanks for the incredible info, I shared it on my facebook page :)

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24 nicolette @ momnivores dilemma February 15, 2012 at 4:44 pm

Jill-

Very thorough. Thank you for this… I wish more people would wake to the dangers of excessive sugar…

I featured you this evening at Creative Juice..,

Thanks for sharing,
Nicolette

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25 April @ The 21st Century Housewife February 16, 2012 at 12:59 pm

This is a very interesting, well researched piece. I’m very much a believer in all things in moderation, and I’m very lucky to have no food allergies or health issues. I think regulating any substance is a difficult thing to police, particularly internationally. However people do need to be made much more aware that too much anything, particularly sugar, is not at all good for their health.

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26 Meagan February 17, 2012 at 6:28 am

Sugar is indeed an addiction. No doubt about that. I for one, am an addict and have made many good changes to my diet, but eliminating sugar has been the hardest one. When I do go a week without it, I then sneak into 7’11 on my way home from work at 7am and devour two old-fashioned glazed donuts and a Starbucks mocha frappuccino… I always feel like a criminal when I get up to the check out. Embarrassed and ashamed that I’m giving in to my addiction. I know I will conquer this, but damn it’s hard. I don’t have any children yet, but I know I do not want my children to have to live like this!

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27 Rebecca @ Natural Mothers Network February 18, 2012 at 8:45 am

Really fascinating and some food for thought. I didn’t realise that fructose could cause many of the health problems associated with alcohol.

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28 Amy January 12, 2013 at 12:58 pm

Everyone should read ‘Pure white and deadly’ by Yukin. It’s a fantastic book full of studies. It has convinced me to cut sugar out of my diet and I am working really hard on this, despite there being sugar and many more foods than you would imagine.

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