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The Bitter Truth About Sugar

Hard to Resist, Tougher to Avoid — and Devastating to Our Health

By Dr. Robert H. Lustig


Sucrose vs. High-Fructose Corn Syrup — What’s the Difference?


Some food labels now loudly proclaim NO HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP to make you think the product is healthy. IT’S NOT. Look at the label. If you see the word “sugar” or any of sugar’s 56 aliases (you can Google “sugar has 56 names” for a full list), it’s junk. Here’s a secret the food industry doesn’t want you to know: “pure cane sugar,” as they like to call it, is 50% fructose. Therefore it is no healthier for you than high-fructose corn syrup; the effect on your metabolism is exactly the same. The only form of fructose that won’t mess with your metabolism is that which occurs naturally in fruit, and only because of the fiber that slows its absorption down. That gives your liver plenty of time to process the sugar that’s absorbed. Ounce for ounce, a glass of juice has more fructose than does the same volume of soda. Fiber also contributes to a sense of fullness. Think about it: Your rarely see a child eat more than one orange at a sitting. But he may fill his glass up with juice several times during the course of one meal. That’s a whole lot of fructose consumed. How will it be stored? As fat.

Blaming the Victim

Excessive weight gain is routinely considered by society to be a behavioral problem — a character flaw exemplifying the sins of gluttony and sloth. While many scientists still see it that way, I and others do not; at least not since the 1994 discovery of a hormone called leptin. This hormone, secreted by fat cells, signals your brain that you’ve got enough fat stored up for long-term energy use so you can reduce your intake of calories. When your brain receives the leptin signal, you no longer feel hungry. Research has shown that too much sugar consumption interferes with the brain’s receipt of that signal, so that a feeling of fullness is never achieved; in fact you think you’re starving. Starvation and reward conspire to thwart every obese person.

Insulin, a hormone that regulates energy storage, also comes into play here. Produced by the pancreas, insulin directs your body to take excess glucose out of your blood stream and store it in your fat cells. You’ve probably heard of insulin in the context of diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes don’t make insulin. People with type 2 diabetes produce lots of it but are resistant to its effects. When a person is insulin resistant, it takes more and more insulin to do the same job. That excess insulin in your bloodstream is going to turn even more energy into fat, which will drive up your weight gain. Meanwhile, spiked levels of insulin will also interfere with that leptin signaling mechanism, which makes you hungrier. The process just becomes a vicious cycle, so you end up over-consuming and developing disease.

Today, because of too much sugar consumption, most overweight people are insulin-resistant, but so are up to 40% of normal-weight people. Insulin resistance, high blood levels of triglyceride (fat) and glucose, and increased belly fat — all resulting from too much added sugar — are signs of “metabolic syndrome.” If you are diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, your risk for heart attack or stroke is doubled, and your risk for developing diabetes is multiplied by five, according to the American Heart Association.

Let’s Take Back Our Health

Now, here’s some good news: There’s an easy way to solve this problem; it’s called real food. So what is real food? It’s low sugar and high fiber. Processed food is high sugar and low fiber. We have to learn to recognize exactly what real food is, and feed ourselves and our children accordingly. It’s the unprocessed items you find along the edges of the grocery store; the things that don’t have a nutrition label or even an ingredients list, because it’s one ingredient; the things you cook yourself. For example, a piece of fish is real food; a fish stick is not.

I’m not saying this is easy. The food industry tries as hard as possible to hide sugar in plain sight under dozens of aliases, such as “evaporated cane juice” and “fruit juice concentrate.” Meanwhile, sugary products are promoted as “low fat” to suggest they are healthy. Sadly, our government does little to stop these deliberate attempts to mislead. So we must become more vigilant, as we can’t expect government to do it for us. We must take back our health.

Here are five things you can do today:

  1. Read the ingredients on food labels. The fewer, the better. If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.
  2. If there’s a health claim on a packaged food, assume it’s the opposite. The “low fat” label has been exploited to conceal high quantities of sugar.
  3. Drink water; avoid soda, sports drinks, sweet teas and juice.
  4. Exercise. Any amount.
  5. Express support for policy changes that help limit added sugar.

The food industry is powerful, but that doesn’t mean invincible. After all, the tobacco lobby is just as powerful. Yet greater health awareness and advocacy on the part of ordinary citizens got cigarettes out of our restaurants, airplanes, workplaces and schools. We have to do the same when it comes to the avalanche of sugar in our food supply. If we don’t take immediate steps both as individuals and as a society to stop poisoning our systems with sugar, we and our children will only get fatter and sicker.

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