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Sugar story shows the need for increased awareness, education

A recent article was published in JAMA Internal Medicine exposing the historic role of the Sugar Association, a lobbying group representing the sugar industry. The article showed that experts were given payments to present a favorable assessment of sugar as a lesser cause of heart and vascular disease than saturated fats.

It was the same approach seen by drug makers that fueled the opioid epidemic and used by the tobacco industry.

The influence was used to protect revenues from addictive products, while at the same time, negatively impacting the health of our citizens.

Much has been written about the epidemic-sized problems we are having from opioids and alcohol. And we’re still fighting a battle against tobacco, especially here in West Virginia. Tobacco use is directly responsible for at least ten times more annual deaths in America than from alcohol or opioids.

We cannot ignore the health impact of processed sugar - a critical factor in the poor health of our state and the country as a whole.

Processed sugar has been directly associated with heart and vascular disease, metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance), diabetes, obesity, fatty liver disease and is conceivably involved in cancer and aging.

Although controversial, some investigators find that refined sugar may be as addictive as other drugs, including opioids and tobacco.

This effect can be measured by brain imaging and in animal tests, and in some studies, rats will choose sugar over cocaine because the reward or “high” is more pleasurable.

Today, processed sugar is added to about 75 percent of the processed food in our country and on average we consume a quarter to half a pound of sugar a day.

If we do the math, we get 90 to 180 pounds of processed sugar a day per person in a year. Published experts, including the FDA, report lower ranges, but are still in the range of 40 to 120 pounds of sugar/person/year in the United States.

Either way, that is a lot of processed sugar.

Friend, author, and critical thinker Gary Taubes took more a year to review all of the research on obesity to understand better why we are so overweight as a population in the US.

Gary's book.

He published his results in the book "Good Calories, Bad Calories."

Gary went into this project with an open mind, and considered our tendency to overeat and be sedentary to be at least partially to blame. After reading these studies, he assessed the principle reason was processed sugar.

Processed sugar is absorbed quickly in the gut and creates a sugar spike in the bloodstream, which drives insulin to be secreted by the pancreas in large amounts.

Gary's research posits that high levels of insulin in the bloodstream is the single leading factor in the storage of fat or obesity.

Interestingly, diets in areas of the world characterized by long and healthy lives (Blue Zones) have people eat more plant-based diets made up of healthy fats (like olive oil and nuts) and much less refined sugar.

What should we do with this information for the health of our citizens? We need to highlight the issues with sugary foods and beverages. 

  • Sugar is hidden in almost all foods – check the labels and watch for added sugars and food high in carbohydrates.
  • Eating fruits are better than drinking juices.
  • Drink water instead of colas and other sugary sports drinks.
  • Eat whole grains, less bread, less breakfast cereal and less fast food.
  • Try to eat fresh vegetables and a salad each day and watch the sugar in the dressings.

For if we are to indent our poor health metrics, we need to focus on great foods. Many say we invented farm to table, and now its time to eat like this ourselves and be the model for others to follow.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Caris Life Sciences.)