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Sweet Enemy: Is Sugar Toxic?

AMY GARDNER / April 19, 2011

A couple days after watching Jamie Oliver pour 57 tons of sugar into a school bus indicating how much students in a particular LA school district get from flavored milk each week, my friend sent me the following article discussing Robert Lustig’s lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” given in May of 2009.  Is Sugar Toxic? – NYTimes Magazine.

This was an interesting read and Lustig certainly makes a compelling argument.  In fact, Lustig was used as an example in the book ‘Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die’ by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.  When someone speaks unequivocally on a widely debated, controversial topic, it sells!  Sugar has been one of the most controversial and villainized nutrients in history.

There is no doubt that large quantities of sugar in whatever form are harmful. But toxic?  I’m not sold.  Specifically, I raise an eyebrow to the claim that fructose, one of the monosaccharides found in sucrose (sugar) puts more stress on the liver than other forms of simple carbohydrate.  All monosaccarides (glucose, fructose, etc) are packaged and processed in the liver.  In large enough quantities, any of them could wreak havoc over time.  To the author’s point, any number of nutrients consumed in excess could prove detrimental.  For example, if you eat enormous amounts of protein, it places greater demand on kidneys to remove excess nitrogen from the body.

The argument that sugar directly causes insulin resistance and diabetes is also suspect.  In large enough quantities and particularly when consumed on its own, over time this could be true.  However, the primary cause of Type 2 Diabetes is carrying too much fat for the body to handle.  Fat cells are naturally more insulin resistant than muscle cells so it has long been known that excess adiposity lead to higher levels of circulating insulin and blood glucose.  Certainly in this scenario, sugar is toxic.  However, in small quantities and when combined with other nutrients (i.e. fiber and protein) that slow down the rate of blood glucose elevation, sugar can be part of a healthy diet.  I worry when parents of healthy teenagers start banning sugar out of fear their kids will get diabetes.

Personally, I am an advocate of moderation. Caffeine and alcohol are “bad” for us in large quantities but fine, even beneficial in small potions.  It’s true that we are likely to consume larger quantities of sweet foods since they taste so good and are easy to overconsume.  Some individuals find that sugar triggers binging and compulsive overeating and in these cases, limiting it or eliminating it can be beneficial.  For others, attempting to adhere to such rigid dietary guidelines can exacerbate eating disorder behaviors.  Ideally, the goal is to find a healthy middle ground.

Moderation is key.  The question remains “what exactly does moderation mean?”  It’s certainly an ambiguous term and I don’t have a definitive answer myself.  My suggestion is to choose a diet made up primarily of whole foods and be mindful of how you incorporate sugar in.  Make sure to get it where it actually matters (like from chocolate cake!).  Here are a couple ways you can mitigate your sugar intake:

1.  Become more aware of the sources of sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in your diet.  I was at a salad bar the other day and noticed that every single dressing had HFCS in it.  Could you opt for red wine vinegar and oil and be just as satisfied?

2.  Are there places you could cut sugar out of your diet without missing it?  Maybe your morning cup of coffee or tea.  Or, maybe you could substitute fruit for your lunchtime dessert.

3.  Try a low glycemic alternative to sugar.  Agave nectar and stevia are some natural ways to sweeten foods without sugar.

3.  When reading food labels, when possible, look for items with < 7g of sugar per 100 calories.

4.  Save sugar for where it matters most.  Allow yourself one small dessert or treat a day!

I do think it’s important to look at the food provided by schools since many times it is highly processed and therefore high in sugar, fat and sodium.  So I appreciate Jamie Oliver going for the shock value with his sugar-filled bus.  There have got to be some other creative ways to help kids get the milk and dairy they need.  Here’s the YouTube clip How Much Sugar?!?