The Truth About Sugar is Not Sweet

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by Dora hildebrand

Christmas is a time when we look forward to beautifully decorated trees, festive parties, family gatherings and those tasty holiday sweets that we all love so much.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it is time to consider that those visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads may actually be stomping out a warning — too much sugar is not only making us fat, it could be killing us. If you have ever been on a weight-loss diet, you know that sugar is a no-no. Daniel G. Amen, M. D., a clinical neuroscientist, psychiatrist, brain imaging expert and author of The Amen Solution: The Secret to Being Thinner, Smarter, Happier, says, “Sugar is not your friend. In fact, it is so damaging to your brain and body that I call it anti-nutrition or toxic calories. Sugar increases inflammation in your body, increases erratic brain-cell firing, and sends your blood sugar levels on a roller-coaster ride.”

On a recent 60Minutes program,* Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Emmy®-award winning chief medical correspondent for the Health, Medical & Wellness unit at CNN, reported on new research showing that beyond weight gain, sugar can take a serious toll on our health: gout, hypertension, heart disease and even cancer. This new research has prompted an anti-sugar campaign led by Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California in San Francisco. After treating too many sick and obese children, Dr. Lustig is convinced that the consumption of added sugars has plunged America into a public health crisis. He’s not just talking about table sugar, honey, syrup, sugary drinks and desserts, but also about every processed food you can imagine. Yes, sugar is often hidden in yogurts, sauces, condiments, bread, and even peanut butter. And what about the man-made, often vilified sweetener, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that enjoys the federal government's industry-friendly status of generally recognized as safe (GRAS)?

We’ve been told by “experts” that a calorie is a calorie. But is it? Controlled studies done recently by Kimber Stanhope, a nutritional biologist at the University of California, Davis, also interviewed by Dr. Gupta, show there is a flaw in this reasoning because the liver processes fructose differently than other calories. The study suggests that when a person consumes too many sweets, the liver gets overloaded with fructose and converts some of it into fat. Some of that fat ends up in the bloodstream and helps generate a dangerous kind of cholesterol called small dense LDL. These particles are known to lodge in blood vessels, form plaque and are associated with heart attacks.

In the 1970s a government commission mandated that we lower fat consumption to reduce heart disease. We did. And guess what? It was about the same time when our weights started to increase. According to Dr. Lustig, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes are skyrocketing. How can this be? Well, once we took the fat out of our food, it was tasteless, so the food industry substituted sugar to make it more palatable. Next on the scene came HFCS, a way to keep the costs of this added sugar low. Ironically, now we’re being told that it’s only the “bad” fat that is not good for us, not all fat.

Overeating, poor memory, learning disorders, depression — all have been linked in recent research to the over-consumption of sugar. And these linkages point to a problem that is only beginning to be better understood: what our chronic intake of added sugar is doing to our brains.

According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the average American consumes 156 pounds of added sugar per year. That’s five grocery store shelves loaded with about 30 one-pound bags of sugar each. The Centers for Disease Control puts the amount at 27.5 teaspoons of sugar a day per person, which translates to 440 calories — nearly one quarter of a typical 2000 calorie-a-day diet.

The key word here is “added.” A healthy diet contains a significant amount of naturally occurring sugar (in fruits and vegetables, for example). Our brains need sugar every day to function. Brain cells require twice the energy needed by all the other cells in the body; roughly 10% of our total daily energy requirements. This energy is derived from glucose (blood sugar), the gasoline of our brains. Sugar is not the brain’s enemy — added sugar is. Okay, we know that added sugar is not our friend. Why do we keep eating it? According to Dr. Amen, new research is showing that sugar is addictive and can even be more addictive than cocaine. Other studies have focused on sugar’s role in over-eating. We intuitively know that sugar and obesity are linked, but the exact reason why hasn’t been well understood until recently. Research now shows that chronic consumption of added sugar dulls the brain’s mechanism for telling us to stop eating.

According to Dr. Lustig, we are in a public health crisis calling us to do big things and do them across the board. Tobacco and alcohol are perfect examples. We’ve made a conscious choice to limit their consumption rather than get rid of them. Dr. Lustig thinks sugar belongs in this exact same wastebasket. Some have suggested that food labels should differentiate sugars in the same way as fats, with a clear indication of the fructose content, for example. At the very least, it is being recommended that the federal government remove the GRAS status from HFCS.

As sugar lovers, what are we to do? We could do nothing and continue adding pounds and increasing our risks. Or is it time to take responsibility for our own health? Everything in moderation might be good advice, although many who have suffered from varying addictions will disagree.

What about artificial sweeteners containing no calories? According to Dr. Amen, these sweeteners are up to six hundred times sweeter than sugar, so they may activate the appetite centers of the brain, making us crave even more food and more sugar.

Even though Dr. Lustig prefers that we eliminate all added sugar, he suggests that we at least keep sugar consumption to a maximum of 150 calories per day for men and 100 for women — less than one can of soda. Keep in mind every gram of sugar equals four calories.

Sugar from whole fruits and vegetables gives us life-sustaining nutrients and much needed fiber that are absent from the added sugars in our food and beverages. Consider the possibilities if during this holiday season we eliminate all foods and beverages made with HFCS. This would be a great first step and could likely reduce our added sugars to the maximum level suggested by Dr. Lustig.

An ancient proverb comes to mind here: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” or in this instance, not eating. If we try it, we may like it. Then perhaps, just perhaps, we may even decide to take the next step and accept Dr. Lustig’s advice to eliminate all added sugar, reducing our risks of heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. Life doesn’t get much better!

Dora Hildebrand, co-founder of Spellbinders Oral Storytellers, Larimer County, is also a writer, family history enthusiast and blogger at