Sugar: Treat Or Toxin?

There has been a lot of buzz lately about the assertions of Robert Lustig, a researcher at UC San Francisco, and his team who claim that sugar should be treated and regulated as a toxin, the same way we regulate alcohol and tobacco.  Both Time and the New York Times Magazine have run lengthy articles about the topic.

Photo courtesy of Uwe Hermann

Lustig explains that sugar does more to harm us than simply causing us to gain weight.  If consumed in very large amounts, it can lead to conditions like diabetes and hypertension.  What is more, large amounts of sugar are associated with a condition called metabolic syndrome, in which the cells in the body ignore the presence of insulin.  When we eat, particularly when we consume carbohydrates, the pancreas secretes insulin to control blood sugar.  But when the cells are insulin resistant, the pancreas responds to carbohydrates by secreting more and more insulin.  This can lead to pancreatic exhaustion and eventually diabetes.  What is worrisome about metabolic syndrome is that it is sometimes present in slender people, and therefore may go unnoticed until long-term damage is done.  There is also some research that suggests that too much sugar may even be linked to cancer, according to the Times article.

The science here is, for the most part, undeniable and rather frightening.  But Lustig’s alarmist reaction – suggesting that sugar, a food, should be viewed and regulated in the same light as toxic substances like tobacco – underscores a deeper dysfunction in the American relationship with food.

Photo courtesy of "dmuth"

Of course we know that diets with less refined sugar are healthier for a number of reasons.  However, the most serious health impacts of sugar occur when we eat too much of it.  Eating a reasonable amount of sugar is not terribly likely to cause severe health problems.  However, our nation’s food chain has become industrialized to the point that, as consumers, we do not know where the food comes from.  With packaged foods, we usually don’t even know what many of the ingredients are.  And even with whole foods like meat, dairy, and produce, we often do not know where or under what conditions the products are farmed.  We have lost our collective food culture.

As a result, we are disconnected from the food we eat and we have few strong cultural traditions around food to fall back on.  This is why so many of us eat meals in our cars, a practice not engaged in to the same extent in other parts of the world.  As Americans, we are lost when it comes to knowing what is good for us to eat.  So we are susceptible to the claims of those who may not have the most balanced or objective opinion.  The Atkins craze, a diet whose validity was largely disproved, is an example of that.

Therefore, when a researcher claims that sugar is a toxin, the media and the public are immediately terrified.  However, if we were more connected to the food we eat, we would not be launched into the throes of irrational fear for two reasons.  First, if we were more connected to what we eat, we would by and large eat more healthfully because we would understand what our food is and where it comes from.  As a result, we would naturally be inclined to eat sugar only in moderation.  Next, a deeper understanding of the food we eat would allow for a culture around food, much like people enjoy in Italy or France.  We would have a collective, tried and true social intelligence that would  give us cues as to how much of a particular food is good to eat. We would be able to look to our parents and grandparents, see that they included sugar in their diets in moderation, and know to do the same thing.

Photo courtesy of theseoduke

In addition, a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the food we eat would cause most of us to largely avoid processed foods.  If we understood all of those long words on the ingredient labels of most packaged foods, we wouldn’t want to consume those products.  As a result, we would be steering clear of the large amounts of high fructose corn syrup ingested by most Americans, thereby avoiding the consumption the high levels of sugar that lead to the health conditions that Lustig describes.

Diet fads come and go.  One day eggs are too high in cholesterol, the next they are healthy and beneficial.  One day carbs are good, the next day they’re the devil.  We don’t need master lists of foods that are naughty and nice.  Rather, we need greater transparency in our food chain, which will allow for a greater connection to the food we eat and an intelligent food culture.  In turn, we will have a population that is more balanced in its food selection and correspondingly healthier.

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