Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sugar Bomb

So, sugar showed up in the news lately. The amount of sugar that is definitively "bad" for you has always been controversial, but they're starting to be able to nail it down a little more scientifically, and a recent study has made a big leap.

But before we get to that, how bad do you think sugar is? And what exactly do we mean by "bad"? A few statistics, just for fun:

If you drink a 20-oz. soda every day, you're right about the average. Though that somehow adds up to a mindblowing 53 gallons a year, and only accounts for a third of your sugar intake, because of course you're eating birthday cake, and that little indulgent scoop of ice cream that you deserve every night, and all sorts of other things you probably don't even realize. But that won't kill you, really. Right?

This statistic is rather generalized, but I did track it down to a reliable source
which was all scientific and gobbledy, so I'll leave it this way and call it good.
A few years ago, an interesting article came out in the New York Times titled, Is Sugar Toxic? Since then, there has been more and more attention given to the idea of sugar as a "toxin", including on a 60 Minutes report last year. There are mountains of fascinating infographics out there about our sugar consumption. It makes you wonder what kind of crazy hype all this is.

Well, last week, sugar crusader Dr. Robert Lustig gave us a landmark study linking global sugar availability to diabetes in an almost irrefutable way.

Sugar, we love to hate you. Or hate to love you. One of the two...But this study, from what I understand, has managed to prove a few things that were previously still up for debate. The most significant one, I would say, is that they've clearly shown that sugar negatively influences your health independent of obesity

"For years, scientists have said...Eating too much of any food, including sugar, can cause you to gain weight; it's the resulting obesity that predisposes people to type 2 diabetes, according to the prevailing theory. But now the results of a large epidemiological study conducted at UC San Francisco suggest that sugar may also have a direct, independent link to diabetes."

Specifically, we've found that across the world: more sugar is linked to more diabetes; the longer people eat sugar, the more diabetes there is; if sugar disappears, so does the diabetes; and that people eating sugar comes before people having diabetes, not the other way around.

(And since diabetes is considered part of the larger "metabolic syndrome" that is the true disease of the Western diet, I'd say that making the scientific leap from sugar/diabetes to obesity, heart disease, cancer, and even depression isn't far off.)

What do you think? What do you do already to avoid sugar, and what do you think you would do if you knew that sugar calories are about 10-11 times worse for you than other calories, which is the bottom-line scientific number the study gives us to work with? Not only that, but how would that information affect your relationship with food, family, culture? Should there be laws about sugar? It's tough, all tangled together like that. But worth thinking about.

Oh, and by the way, Mark Bittman (well-known food columnist and author of Food Matters) says this study demonstrates its conclusions "with the same level of confidence that linked cigarettes and lung cancer in the 1960s." 

The fine print

Now, there are still critics; they especially don't like that the study used sugar availability rather than sugar consumption. But to get 10 years worth of worldwide data in the amounts that this study used, of course you can't get down to precise individual consumption, you can only watch trends of how much sugar was on the market and how much disease was treated. The advantage of using the slightly less-specific measure is that you can get numbers from a lot more countries, and include millions of people rather than a few hundred or thousand; that adds stability to the results that you can't get any other way. And, more to the point, it allowed the researchers to include a few countries that actually did experience a reduction in sugar availability, to verify that when the sugar goes away so does the diabetes, which I found a very compelling fact. Lastly, the larger population numbers allowed statistical methods to control more reliably for factors like race, poverty level, obesity, education, all that, so that we can be pretty sure that the effects they're telling us about are from the sugar itself, not something else.

A little bibliography

In the NYT:

It's the Sugar, Folks
An alternative, more extended report in the LA Times:
Availability of Sugar Influences Rate of Diabetes, Study Says
From the university where the study's authors work:
Quantity of Sugar in Food Supply Linked to Diabetes Rates

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