Some notes on cutting out sugar, a chronic poison

I am currently experimenting with cutting refined and processed sugars out of my diet. This is to mitigate depression, not for weight loss as I am fortunate never to have had that problem (combination of genes, vegetarianism, healthy eating).

But in the process of reading up about sugar, I have been interested to discover the somewhat controversial views of paediatrician Dr Robert Lustig, who describes refined sugar as a poison in his 2009 University of California academic-lecture-gone-viral: Sugar – The Bitter Truth. Lustig is no alternative medicine quack; he’s an extremely highly qualified doctor of orthodox medicine.

For those who don’t have time to watch Lustig’s full 90 min lecture, some of the essentials are repeated and cautiously supported in this April 2011 New York Times article by Gary Taubes, ‘Is Sugar Toxic?’

There’s also a whole series of more accessible videos on YouTube from Lustig and colleagues, ‘Diet, Nutrition and the Obesity Epidemic’.

Lustig’s four simple (if not easy) steps to ending childhood obesity

Lustig’s recommendations (for parents and children at risk of obesity), so far as I can discern, boil down to this:

  • Avoid all sweetened and sugared beverages (sodas/fizzy drinks), including fruit juice.
  • Eat carbohydrates with fibre. Lustig talks in terms of checking ingredients, which immediately tells us that he’s thinking in terms of choosing between processed foods, but the simple way to do this is to eat only fresh and whole foods, i.e., fruits, vegetables, whole grains (brown rice, potatoes, whole grain products). Beware of what supermarkets call ‘wholewheat’ or ‘wholegrain’ bread * which often includes many unwanted and unnecessary additives, including high-fructose corn syrup.
  • Wait 20 minutes for second portions.
  • ‘Buy screen time with activity time’, that is, balance all time spent with TVs and computers with actually living.

Fruit is okay, because the intrinsic fructose comes with lots of fibre. And fibre reduces carbohydrate absorption, gives you that full feeling and inhibits some absorption of free fatty acids in ways that help suppress insulin.

It should be noted that these recommendations are made with children at risk of obesity in mind, and that is usually children exposed to processed foods and fast foods, particularly in English-speaking countries (the US, UK, etc). But there’s no reason why these all shouldn’t be good for adults too.

My own sugar consumption has been mostly come down to added cane sugar in tea or coffee, with morning porridge or yoghurt, and occasional consumption of chocolates, cakes or biscuits (cookies). Processed foods (aside from bread) I have long excluded from my diet, I eat only brown rice, and little pasta. Most of my carbs come from raw oats, sorghum porridge, brown rice, potatoes and bread (usually artisanal wholewheat).

Some myths and preconceptions about diet and sugar

These are some of the points I have found really interesting in looking through all this:

  • The relationship between the hunger signalled by a stomach hormone called ghrelin) and satiety, which is signaled only when food reaches the end of our 20-foot small intestine. This is the reason for waiting 20 mins before choosing second helpings.
  • Lustig is an extremely passionate speaker, and not scared to point to and condemn the influence of special interests, particularly the US Corn Industry. His passion no doubt stems from witnessing the immense suffering of his child patients.
  • ‘A calorie is not a calorie’ – because we process different foods in different ways. Equivalent amounts of refined sugar and brown rice may be ‘isocaloric but not isometabolic’ to use Lustig’s phrase.
  • Fructose is metabolised almost entirely by the liver, which can convert it to fat in a process called de novo lipogenesis.
  • Glucose (which the body derives from breaking down carbs) can be processed by any cell in the body. ‘Glucose is good carbohydrate; fructose is poison.’
  • ‘You are NOT what you eat; you are WHAT YOU DO with what you eat.’
  • Exercise is important not because it makes you ‘burn lots of calories’ but because it improves insulin metabolism, reduces stress and stress-eating, and allows glucose to be used before it has a chance to be converted into fat.
  • Eating lots of fibre is vital because ‘When God made the poison [fructose], he packaged it with the antidote [fibre].’
  • Taubes: ‘If the fructose hits the liver in sufficient quantity and with sufficient speed, the liver will convert much of it to fat. This apparently induces a condition known as insulin resistance, which is now considered the fundamental problem in obesity, and the underlying defect in heart disease and in the type of diabetes, type 2, that is common to obese and overweight individuals. It might also be the underlying defect in many cancers.’
  • Yes, sugar causes cancer.
  • Lustig: ‘If you eat everything as it comes out of the ground, raw, you can cure diabetes. Takes about a week.’
  • The new infant obesity trend is probably caused by sugar being added to infant formula – some infant formula, according to Lustig, contains as much sugar as Coke. This is evil.

Sugar trends and obesity trends

  • Taubes: ‘In 1924, Haven Emerson, director of the institute of public health at Columbia University, reported that diabetes deaths in New York City had increased as much as 15-fold since the Civil War years, and that deaths increased as much as fourfold in some U.S. cities between 1900 and 1920 alone. This coincided, he noted, with an equally significant increase in sugar consumption — almost doubling from 1890 to the early 1920s — with the birth and subsequent growth of the candy and soft-drink industries.’
  • Taubes: ‘In 1980, roughly one in seven Americans was obese, and almost six million were diabetic, and the obesity rates, at least, hadn’t changed significantly in the 20 years previously. By the early 2000s, when sugar consumption peaked, one in every three Americans was obese, and 14 million were diabetic.’

There are many more fascinating gems in Lustig’s full-length lecture, it’s well worth dipping into. Elsewhere he gets interviewed by no-sugar convert Alec Baldwin.

Back to sugar and mood

I linked further up to Michael Ellberg’s Forbes account of dealing with bipolar II depression by giving up sugar, caffeine and alcohol. Here’s a key excerpt:

The first two weeks of the quest were hell. The alcohol wasn’t that hard—I had been a mostly well-behaved social drinker throughout my twenties—but the coffee and sugar got to me. All I could think about was coffee and sugar. Coffee sugar coffee sugar coffee sugar. It was like being extremely horny, except for coffee and sugar instead of sex. Coffee sugar coffee sugar coffee sugar—thoughts on instant replay in my mind 24/7, even in my dreams. Headaches, fatigue, depression, haze. I almost gave up the challenge on several occasions during that first two weeks.

But I knew this was something I had to do, if I wanted to stay alive.
One morning, two weeks into the challenge, I woke up. The haze in my mind had lifted. It was a clear, crisp, brilliant sunny day in my mind—the first such day of sunny internal weather for years.

(Noted in passing: I’m bipolar. I tried Ellsberg’s suggestion, and did not get the same results… results zero, in fact.)

Here’s a final bonus article, ‘What sugar does to your brain’, from Forbes.

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
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One Response to Some notes on cutting out sugar, a chronic poison

  1. Well, have you found the no sugar treatment has helped YOU? Loved the macbook battery article, btw…you’re an excellent satirist. I am preparing to stab my batteries now.

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