Sweet poison: why sugar is ruining our health
- Written by Victoria Lambert
Like it or lump it, few of us get through the day without adding sugar to our daily diet. Here's why it's ruining our health.
We are a Pavlovian population made up of sugar, treacle and toffee addicts, drawn to the taste of sweetness like bees to honey. So ingrained is our desire that even writing about sugar now is sending my salivary glands into overdrive as my brain reacts to the very thought of it, whizzing neurotransmitters around to prepare my body for some serious glucose action. Perhaps you, while reading this, are reaching – almost unwittingly – for a chocolate Hobnob?
But that’s not a problem, is it? We could stop and eat a piece of cheese instead – any time we wanted. Or could we?
Maybe not. It seems that our desire to load up with sugar regularly may not be the cheeky reward-cum-energy boost we think it is. Increasingly, experts believe we can be truly addicted to sugar. French scientists in Bordeaux reported that in animal trials, rats chose sugar over cocaine (even when they were addicted to cocaine), and speculated that no mammals’ sweet receptors are naturally adapted to the high concentrations of sweet tastes on offer in modern times. They worried, in a paper published in 2007, that the intense stimulation of these receptors by our typical 21st-century sugar-rich diets must generate a supra-normal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction.
So if you feel like you are craving a chocolatey treat, that craving is more than just a figure of speech. You may be one of the world’s most common dependants: a sugar addict.
But take heart. Around the world, a growing body of expert opinion – the 'No Sugar’ movement – is leading a global fightback and warning that our sweet habit is completely out of control, leaving a nasty taste in the mouth of the body public. Sugar, whether added to food by you or the manufacturer, is the greatest threat to human health, bar none, they say. And unless we wise up and quit en masse, we don’t just risk personal obesity and disease, but national bankruptcy and collapse as the toll our ill health takes on our countries’ economies threatens to destabilise the modern world.
The movement is led by Robert Lustig, professor of paediatric endocrinology at University of California, San Francisco, author of Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar, numerous scientific and press articles, and presenter of “Sugar: the Bitter Truth”, a YouTube clip viewed more than 3,300,000 times. But 'No Sugar’ proponents also include Australian writer David Gillespie, author of Sweet Poison and the new Sweet Poison Quit Plan, just out in the UK, as well as actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who reveals in her new cookbook It’s All Good that her family are not permitted to eat any refined carbs (let alone sugar), and even Andy Burnham, the Opposition Health Secretary, who called in January for high-sugar children’s foods such as Frosties and Sugar Puffs to be banned by politicians.
Lustig leads the field with his warning that not all calories are equal, because not all monosaccharides – the simplest forms of sugar, the building blocks of all carbohydrates – are equal.
At a basic level, sucrose, or table sugar (which is made up of equal molecules of the monosaccharides fructose and glucose) is not metabolised in the same way that a carbohydrate such as flour is.
He explains: ''An analysis of 175 countries over the past decade showed that when you look for the cause of type 2 (non-insulin dependent) diabetes, the total number of calories you consume is irrelevant. It’s the specific calories that count. When people ate 150 calories more every day, the rate of diabetes went up 0.1 per cent. But if those 150 calories came from a can of fizzy drink, the rate went up 1.1 per cent. Added sugar is 11 times more potent at causing diabetes than general calories.”
Why is this? Well, look more closely through the microscope, and Lustig (and others) believe it is the fructose molecule in sugar that is to blame.
Lustig explains that instead of helping to sate us, some scientists believe that fructose fools our brains into thinking we are not full, so we overeat. Moreover, excess fructose cannot be converted into energy by the mitochondria inside our cells (which perform this function). “Instead,” he explains, “they turn excess fructose into liver fat. That starts a cascade of insulin resistance (insulin promotes sugar uptake from blood) which leads to chronic metabolic disease, including diabetes and heart disease.”
Look online and you’ll see fructose described as “fruit sugar” – it’s the nutrient that nature put into apples and pears to entice humans (and birds) to eat them. So do we stop eating fruit in order to go sugar-free? It’s not that easy. Fruit is sweetened by fructose but it doesn’t contain very much, although you still shouldn’t eat very sweet fruit like grapes and melon to excess.
The problem lies in sources of sweetness like corn syrup, agave or maple syrup and honey, which contain a higher percentage of fructose than fruit, especially if they have been processed, meaning additional fructose is added in. Some agave nectars, for example, can be 92 percent fructose, eight percent glucose.
The food industry loves these sweeteners, especially high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), as they make every type of food more palatable – from soup to bagels, ketchup to bread. In the United States, HFCS is especially popular following governmental production quotas of domestic sugar, subsidies of US corn, and an import tariff on foreign sugar, making HFCS super cheap. As a liquid, it is also easier to blend and transport. In particular, it is used in low-fat foods (which would otherwise taste, says Lustig, “like cardboard”). His theory goes a long way to explaining why the low-fat diets which rose to popularity in the Seventies have coincided with a rise in obesity and related illnesses.
So before you can think about giving these sweeteners up, you have to turn label detective – and find them.
Thousands of miles away, nodding in agreement, is David Gillespie, a Brisbane-based lawyer turned researcher whose Sweet Poison books chart his own decision to stop eating sugar, resulting in him losing six stone without dieting in a year. He explains: “You are breaking an addiction, so you need to stop consuming all sources of the addictive substance. They are all hard to give up because they are addictive – but they are all easy to give up once you understand what you are doing and why.”
He adds: “Your palate adjusts significantly and quickly when you delete sugar. You can suddenly experience a whole range of flavours that either you didn’t know existed before or were muted by the presence of sugar. One thing people often remark on after they’ve been off sugar for a month or so is that suddenly they can smell it. They can tell you where the confectionery aisle or the breakfast cereal aisle is in a strange supermarket by smell alone.” What worries Gillespie, though, is not the candy by the checkout – but the fructose lurking in your ready-meal. “Very few of us are making conscious decisions about the sugar we eat,” he says. “The average Briton is consuming more than a kilo – 238 teaspoonfuls – a week, but I bet they’d be flummoxed accounting for more than a few teaspoons of that. Sugar is deeply and thoroughly embedded in our food supply.”
He’s right. We’re buying fewer bags of granulated sugar. And Defra statistics show that we’re consuming fewer calories from “free sugars” such as table sugar, honey and sugars found naturally in fruit juices – although at 13.9 per cent that is still higher than the recommended 11 per cent we should be aiming for – than in previous years.
Even the actual number of calories we consume has fallen: Defra figures show that there has been a long-term downward trend in energy intake since 1964, with average energy intake per person 28 per cent lower in 2010 than in 1974.
Yet, obesity rates continue to rise: currently 26 percent of Britons are obese, half of us are overweight. This is a mighty problem: direct costs caused by obesity are now estimated to be £5.1billion per year. Obesity is associated with cardiovascular risk and with cancer, disability during old age, decreased life expectancy and serious chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis and hypertension.
Like Lustig, Gillespie sees our inate weight problem as connected to the rise in consumption of hidden sugar. Unlike Lustig, Gillespie’s ideas were inspired personally, from looking down at a belly that was expanding year on merciless year, regardless of what trendy diet he tried.
“In 2002, my wife Lizzie and I had four kids under the age of nine,” he explains, “when I reached my maximum weight of 20 stone [127kg].” (Gillespie is 5ft 9in.) “I felt lethargic and unwell most of the time. When Lizzie announced our fifth child was to be twins, I had to do something.”
Gillespie began reading John Yudkin’s book Pure, White and Deadly, published in 1972, which also showed that consumption of sugar and refined sweeteners is closely associated with long-term disease.
Fascinated, Gillespie soaked up research papers which connected fructose (in particular) to fatty liver disease, to appetite stimulation, and to gout, diabetes, memory loss and, of course, obesity. He was shocked to learn “how many of our organs sugar systematically destroys without symptoms until it is too late. First the liver, then the pancreas, then the kidneys, and ultimately the heart.”
The more he learnt, the more Gillespie was determined to do something about his own eating habits. “I stopped eating sugar and immediately started losing weight – without adjusting anything else about how I lived.”
For Gillespie, the weight started dropping straight away, but the sense of addiction took a little longer to go: “At the two-four week mark I noticed I was no longer craving food and in particular I could leave things which I would have found difficult to bypass before.
“But I wasn’t feeling deprived. I ate what I wanted and as long as it didn’t contain sugar, the weight kept coming off. I had stumbled upon a way of fixing what had obviously been a broken appetite control system up to that point in my life.”
But there were setbacks: “I discovered the addictive power of sugar early in the process. I was out at a fundraiser and was served up a chocolate cake. I’d been off sugar for about a month and I didn’t want to waste it, so I ate it. I figured I’d be all right, but how wrong I was.
“The next day I had constant cravings for sugar and the gnawing desire to eat and drink everything available – clearly I’d crossed a threshold and needed to go through sugar withdrawal again. I did, and two weeks later was once again able to walk past chocolate without feeling any particular longing.”
His family were not left behind. “The kids didn’t like it,” he says, “but eventually they got used to it and their palates adjusted. Now they are pretty pleased with teeth that don’t have cavities, rarely getting colds and feeling energetic, with none of the highs and lows that come with sugar eating.”
That mood roller-coaster is one of the reasons Gwyneth Paltrow, in a blog entry on her website Goop, gives for quitting sugar: “Sugar gives you an initial high, then you crash, then you crave more, so you consume more sugar. It’s this series of highs and lows that provoke unnecessary stress on your adrenals. You get anxious, moody (sugar is a mood-altering drug) and eventually you feel exhausted.”
So is it time for everyone to accept a life of total abstinence? Not so fast, says the British Dietetic Association (BDA). “Sugar is not bad for you as part of a balanced diet,” says dietitian Sylvia Turner. “It has an important role in providing flavour and texture to foods. Just remember, sugar contains calories but few nutrients, so eating too much added sugar and sugary food and drinks instead of other healthy foods can make your diet less nutritious.”
She adds: “Some research suggests that sugary drinks make it harder for us to regulate the overall amount of calories eaten and a regular intake may be a factor contributing to obesity in children.”
And not all scientists agree with Lustig: a US study published last summer in the journal Diabetes Care suggested that fructose could have a positive role to play in the regulation of blood sugar in type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes. Even so, Gillespie points out: “The public have taken to the 'No Sugar’ movement. In Australia, hundreds of thousands of people have successfully quit sugar.”
And once the decision is made, it can be stuck to. “It’s no particular feat of willpower,” he promises. “I just make sure I don’t inadvertently consume fructose and the rest takes care of itself. My weight stays the same and I eat and exercise normally (not like a person on a diet). I am no more tempted to eat sugar again than a smoker who has successfully quit for 10 years would be tempted to light up again.”
I did my degree in hotel management and catering, and I’ve run a corner shop for more than 30 years. I’ve always been aware of the dangers of sugar and I remember reading a book about it called Pure, White and Deadly by John Yudkin, about five years before I started working at the shop.
I’ve got a very addictive nature and although I’ve managed to completely keep away from the other addictive and dangerous products we sell – alcohol and tobacco – for more than 20 years, I’ve always had a problem with sugar.
I’m lucky enough to be married to a superb cook, Sue, who has always prepared meals from natural ingredients, so I don’t eat ready-meals and I’ve never taken sugar in my tea and coffee. It’s really the hidden, refined sugar in other products that has been my downfall.
I think the main difficulty is that we work quite long hours, and it’s the easiest thing in the world for someone with a corner shop to go and have a Magnum or a handful – and I mean a handful – of chocolate Freddos or jelly babies, or a cherry muffin. You feel like the sugar rush will get you through the hours.
Then about eight years ago, I started to have serious health problems. I had an upset tummy all the time, I lost a lot of weight, and I really felt rotten. The doctor diagnosed IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and told me to eat more fibre. I then did a little extra self-diagnosis and had a stool test done, which revealed I had a Candida problem; this means bad pathogenic bacteria in my gut, which were feeding on the sugar I was eating.
I started taking probiotics and stayed completely away from all types of sugar for a year, meaning no sweets or fizzy drinks and also no fruit for the first couple of months. I could feel the benefits of it reasonably quickly, and gradually I got better.
However, just like every smoker who has tried to quit, I felt that I’d cracked giving up sugar and one chocolate bar wouldn’t do me any harm. From there it was a slippery slope, as one became three in a couple of days, and three became even more after that. I didn’t get as ill again and didn’t necessarily realise I had any symptoms from returning to sugar, but gradually I did get to a stage where I’d feel so tired during the day that I absolutely had to have a sugar rush. Even being more aware of the dangers of sugar since I’ve been ill hasn’t actually stopped me going for that hit on a regular basis.
Personally, I do believe that sugar is a poison. But this has still not stopped me poisoning myself on a regular basis over the years. At the moment I am trying, once again, to stay clear.
David Gillespie's tips on how to kick the sugar habit
Every cereal with more than 3g of sugar per 100g should be thrown out. Porridge, Weetabix and unflavoured shredded wheat are good choices, as is plain buttered toast with marmite or a meat or cream cheese spread.
Be wary of yogurts – if they contain fruit juice extract as the sweetener they will be high in sugar.
Eggs with bacon and sausages are fine; though commercial sauces such as tomato and barbecue are all full of sugar. Mayonnaise is, too, unless it is whole-egg and full-fat.
Shop-bought pancake mixes are all high in sugar but you can make them by substituting dextrose. Top with butter or fresh strawberries.
Avoid pastries (except plain croissants) and all jams and honey.
Avoid juice and sweetened drinks of any description. Unflavoured water (be it still or sparkling) and unflavoured milk are the only soft drinks you should have.
Switch to dextrose in tea or coffee if you are used to adding sugar.
Stick to low-sugar alcohol, such as red wine. Other dry wines, beers and spirits (if unmixed with other drinks containing sugar) are OK. Dessert wines, ports, liqueurs and mixers are not.
Any kind of sandwich that involves low-fructose bread, butter and a spread that isn’t sweet is fine.
Salads are fine as long as you avoid balsamic vinegar and dressings that are unreasonably high in sugar.
A meal of meat with any kind of vegetable is fine. Avoid relishes, though mustards and gravy are almost completely sugar-free.
Stick to Chinese or Indian cuisine rather than Thai and Malaysian, which often use brown sugar as the primary ingredient in their sauces. Stay away from anything that mentions honey or sweet chilli.
Pizza is fairly low-sugar. But if you make it at home, choose a tomato purée with the lowest possible sugar content - they vary widely. Frozen and other ready-made pizzas tend to be higher in sugar: meat pies and sausage rolls are a far superior option. Pasta, potatoes and rice are great with anything as long as you are careful about the sugar content of the sauces.
In general, beware of ready meals – these will almost always have significantly higher sugar levels than their home-made counterparts.
When eating out, make a habit of choosing the cheese platter with coffee instead of pudding, and stick to water or red wine.
Ditch chocolate, sweets and ice cream of any description. Biscuits are only slightly less bad, though shortbreads and malted milk biscuits are among the lowest sugar biscuits. Avoid dried fruit (70 per cent sugar) and substitute nuts or non-sugar treats such as potato crisps for sugary snacks.
Though high in fructose, fruit can be eaten in small quantities (no more than two pieces per day) because they contain a large amount of innate soluble fibre, which helps the body mitigate fructose damage. They also contain water, which dilutes the sugar.