Is sugar the modern addiction?9th September 2014
Sugar. It’s the latest in a continuing circle of foodstuffs to be condemned.
You’ve probably heard about Dr Robert Lustig’s diatribe against it, at least in passing. It seems like common sense. We all know too many sweets or fizzy drinks are bad for you, but is it really as bad as he says? Isn’t it just about moderation?
In his book, Fat Chance: ‘The Hidden Truth About Sugar, Obesity and Disease’, Dr Lustig claims that we have underestimated the dangers of sugar. It is not just an unhealthy additive, but an addictive substance on a par with tobacco, alcohol and cocaine. The symptoms of withdrawal can be just as strong, which is why that diet can be so hard to keep up. It’s a relatively recent problem, he says, ironically caused by our own discoveries about health.
As we realised the dangers of excessive fat consumption, food producers started to create foods with less fat. But in doing so, they had to add sugar to keep it tasting good. The more sugar they added, the more we bought their foods, and so added sugar became profitable, not just a necessary replacement for the fat. And that’s why those same producers will fight so hard to tell you that a little is ok, and that you don’t need to cut it out completely – because they will lose profits if we avoid their sugary foods.
While you can’t argue with his basic premise, this is all starting to sound a bit conspiracy heavy though, isn’t it? Well, so did the tobacco story, but now the truth is out that the conspiracy really did exist. I’m not paranoid – they really are out to get me!
Certainly, there are plenty of stories out there that give anecdotal weight to his argument. There’s Michelle Allen, 47, who weighed over 26 stone at her heaviest and was a size 32. She was addicted to cake and claims to have spent £87,360 over 30 years before changing her ways. She’s now lost an impressive 17 stone and has dropped to a size 12. And Denise, who shared her story on this blog about weight loss, saying ‘The most interesting thing I’ve discovered is that in giving up sugar and starch, the “emotional eating” went with it. Speaking strictly for myself, I have concluded that it was not emotional eating, it was addiction, a very physical addiction to sugar and starch. Because it went away when I quit eating them.’
But David Katz, Director of Yale Prevention Research Centre, calls for a little calm on the matter, and says it’s unhelpful to demonise sugar like this. Of course too much is bad for you, he says in a rebuttal to Dr Lustig’s book, that’s what excess means. Anything to excess is harmful. But he says there’s a reason we crave sugar, and just because we see withdrawal symptoms doesn’t mean something is bad for you. The reason drugs are addictive is because they fool the body’s natural reward system, but that reward system operates the same way for things that we need. That’s why we’ve developed it. You’d expect to see withdrawal symptoms from giving up water, but you wouldn’t conclude that we should do that. Equally, drinking water to excess can cause headaches, nausea, fatigue, vomiting and even death.
Perhaps they’re both right – sometimes it takes a shocking exaggeration to bump us out of bad habits, so Dr Lustig’s attitude may be what we need right now. Long term, though David Katz advocates normal common sense. He still warns against processed foods with added sugars, but thinks naturally occurring sugars shouldn’t be avoided. Eat fresh, mostly plants and moderate your quantities. And that seems to be the answer to most of these ‘health scares’. Learn to recognise your unhealthy habits, and adapt to that simple rule of thumb and you can’t go far wrong.
If you think sugar is the ultimate evil, or you just need to cut down on your intake, we can help. All our food is super fresh. We use no refined or added sugar whatsoever. So if you’re trying to wean yourself off gradually, or want to go cold turkey, we can tailor your diet plan specifically to your needs and personal taste.
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