Sugar Is at the Heart of America's Health Problems

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The following is a summary of our recent book interview with Gary Taubes, which can be accessed on our site here or on iTunes here.

Americans are increasingly afflicted with chronic obesity and diabetes. While the medical community struggles with how to tackle these problems, it’s becoming clear that the culprit may be an ingredient common to the majority of processed foods.

This time on Financial Sense Newshour, we spoke with Gary Taubes, author of several books, including his latest release, The Case Against Sugar, where he argues that America's addiction to sweet, processed foods is by far one of the main contributing causes for widespread health problems in the US.

Conventional Thinking Is Incorrect

The conventional thinking on obesity is that we become overweight because we consume more calories than we expend, Taubes stated.

The explanation implies that as populations become more affluent and more appetizing foods are available, and we have less reason to do manual labor or exercise, we therefore develop an issue with caloric imbalance.

“This is a very naïve way to think about a very complex physiological defect akin to a growth defect,” Taubes said.

We can find non-affluent populations in which malnourished children are not getting enough calories to survive, and yet the same population has obese adults, Taubes pointed out.

The explanation is likely that sugar creates a hormonal setup in the human body that, among other negative effects, channels calories into fat tissue and remains there, he added.

“It all argues for a hormonal, regulatory explanation for obesity that’s triggered by something in our diet,” he said. “The prime suspect has always been and still is sugar.”

Diabetes' Smoking Gun?

There are two significant types of diabetes. Type I is the acute form that generally develops in childhood and is an insulin-deficiency disorder where the pancreas doesn’t secrete enough insulin to cope with carbohydrate load in our diets. Type I cases represent a few percent of all diabetes cases.

Type II is a chronic condition, it doesn’t kill as quickly, and is a disorder of insulin resistance, Taubes stated.

“Rather than not secreting enough insulin initially, the insulin we secret isn’t doing the job properly, so we have to secrete more and more insulin to control blood sugar,” he said.

In the early 1960s, researchers found that type II diabetes patients had both high insulin levels and high sugar levels in their blood, confirming that the disease is based on insulin resistance.

Sugar is the fundamental cause of insulin resistance that leads to type II diabetes, Taubes argued. Around 1 in 11 Americans are estimated to have type II diabetes, and all or nearly all of these cases are fundamentally caused by the sugar content of our diet.

This all started to come to light after the Civil War, where we see cases in hospital in-patient records and diabetes mortality records increasing. By the early 1920s, physicians in America began discussing the issue for the first time as an epidemic, because they’d seen diabetes go from being a vanishingly rare disease to a relatively common disease in their lifetime, Taubes stated.

During this same period, sugar went from a luxury food to a more common commodity over this time period.

“The obvious suspect back then was sugar,” he said. “Why did we stop blaming sugar?”

By the 1960s, we saw an almost complete transformation of the American diet, where Americans didn’t go for more than 2 or 3 hours in a day without consuming the amount of sugar we would have eaten once a week 150 years earlier, Taubes stated.

The Not So Sweet Reality

In the 1960s, researchers became convinced that dietary fat was the primary culprit in Western diets. It was labeled the cause of heart disease, and researchers thought it might be the cause of obesity too because of its dense caloric content.

By the 1980s, the US government convinced the food industry to replace fats in foods, which manufacturers did by removing fat and replacing it largely with sugar, mostly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, Taubes stated.

“Over (this period), we have this slow increase in obesity and diabetes, which then explodes in the 1980s,” he added.

Instead of thinking of it as some kind of hormonal regulatory issue that might make some people accumulate excess fat when other people don’t, US-based researchers decided it was a simple calorie balance issue.

“This is an incredibly naïve concept and it’s still believed today by some huge percent of the research community.”

Meanwhile, Taubes says, the sugar industry funds huge advertising campaigns to keep reminding both the scientific community and the public that obesity researchers believe it’s just about calories, so there’s nothing unique about sugar.

“There’s a lot of challenges to getting this accepted,” Taubes said.

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