Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Sugar -- Our Sweet Enemy

Forget about ISIS and terrorists. We are killing ourselves without their help. No guns. Just spoons and forks. Americans are eating ourselves into poor health and major diseases. Just ask the authors of the three books I have been reading: (1) JJ Virgin’s Sugar Impact Diet: Drop 7 Hidden Sugars, Lose Up to 10 Pounds in Just 2 Weeks; (2) Suicide by Sugar: a Startling Look at Our #1 National Addiction; (3) Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. The authors, respectively, are JJ Virgin, Nancy Appleton and G.N. Jacobs, and Robert H. Lustig.

These three books have scary titles that describe their content. They all point out in different ways that sugar and related sweeteners plus processed foods have made Americans and people around the world heavier and sicker than they were in the 1980s and earlier. They tell us about the science of our metabolisms and how sugars, especially high fructose corn syrup, are in almost all processed foods in addition to obvious sweetening additions to our meals. They also suggest ways to reverse our copious use of sweet things. They know whereof they speak. The three books are sprinkled with stories about people who turned their lives around.

JJ Virgin is a bestselling author who has appeared in television, magazines and blogs. Her book is chatty and appears aimed at women who enjoy light reading. It also has content with its conversational style.

Nancy Appleton has a BS in clinical nutrition and a PhD in health services, and has a private practice in California. G.N. Jacobs is a reporter and filmmaker.  Appleton focuses on sugar as addictive for many people. Her story is about homeostasis, which she says is “the internal balance of the body’s electro-magnetic and chemical systems.” She says our bodies need balance for health: “Our bodies heal when we are in homeostasis.” It takes a book to make this sound relevant and interesting.

Robert H. Lustig is a medical doctor who has spent twenty years treating childhood obesity and studying the effects of sugar on the central nervous system and metabolism. Lustig is somewhat trendy now and appeared this week on Wisconsin Public Television in addition to being on YouTube and publishing a DVD with information about sugar consumption. In addition, I have spotted him on the Doctor Oz Show. Lustig’s book is the most scientific and is less easy to read than the others, but the person who reads it all learns a lot about how sugar is bad for our metabolisms from birth throughout life.

It looks as if we need to slow down on sugar consumption and that it isn’t easy for most people. The three authors agree that Americans get hooked on sweet foods, especially soda and processed foods, and it is giving us metabolic syndrome, which according to Lustig is a cluster of five chronic conditions familiar to most people: “obesity, diabetes, lipid problems such as high triglyceride and low HDL, hypertension, cardiovascular disease), any or all of which increase your chance of early death.” (Lustig, p. 94.) Lustig’s ongoing statement is, “a calorie is not a calorie,” meaning that calories are not all alike. Broccoli and soda are very different. Appleton’s list of factors for metabolic syndrome includes elevated blood pressure, elevated C-reactive protein, high fasting blood glucose levels, high triglycerides, a large waistline, low levels of HDL, raised LDL, and raised total cholesterol levels.

Appleton has a chapter that gives 140 reasons why sugar is ruining your health. She gives a list of thirty-one forms of sugar. She says Americans eat sugar and other similar sweeteners at about forty-eight teaspoons per person per day, while about two teaspoons of added sugar two or three times a day is usually the body’s threshold for added sugar. Virgin says that the average American eats about twenty-two teaspoons of sugar every day. I don’t know where they get their statistics, but either figure is a lot of sweet stuff. Virgin says, “It will blow your mind when you see how much sugar is sneaking into your diet—mountains of it, even in things you would swear have no added sugar.” (Virgin, p. xv.)

Virgin talks about hidden sugars that are in the processed foods that many people eat. She says, “…refined sugar by itself is a bad thing (especially liquid sugars like juice and soda), but you should avoid processed foods with added sugar and fat together at all costs—it’s a fat-storing, metabolically toxic combo.” (Virgin, p. 43.) She rates sugars into low, medium and high impact in accordance with the damage they can do. She has suggestions on how to eat in restaurants and fast food places. She says that exercise is good but we need to get our eating right first. She tells us to go easy on grains, roots and fruit, low-fat and no-fat dairy and diet foods, sweet drinks and dressings, and sweeteners and added sugars.

Lustig compares food addiction to established criteria for substance dependence. He’s the doctor, so he gives us an essay on what constitutes addiction: seven criteria, of which an addict usually has three: tolerance, withdrawal, binging, desire or attempts to quit, craving or seeking, interference with life, and use despite negative consequences. (Lustig, p. 55-56.) He expresses concern that many obese children come to his office and that type 2 diabetes is becoming common in children as well as adults. He says the goal of obesity management is to keep insulin down. He tells us about insulin and other hormones that affect our eating.

The three say in various ways that it’s not our fault. The food industry is in there with thousands of appealing processed foods. People are eating fast food in their busy lives. School lunch programs give kids processed sugary foods. Deceptive advertising is ubiquitous.  Our way of living and eating is a big problem, but not insurmountable. Virgin has chapters that tell how to taper, transition and transform. Appleton offers three food plans to follow.  Appleton and Virgin give recipes to help people who need help. All three give suggestions that can make a difference.  Lustig calls for global sugar reduction because the problem is not just American.

It’s about our health. If everyone stopped eating sugars, our medical establishment would shrink, food processors would need to change or cease to exist, and we all would feel a lot better and have longer lives. Yes, sweet foods are delicious and hard to resist. But life and health are precious. Virgin in her chatty way says, “So let me shout this from the mountaintop—it’s the impact of sugar that matters. You don’t have to eliminate sugar completely, but you need to choose your sugars wisely.” (Virgin, p. xiv.)