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Tracking The Rising Backlash Against Sugar

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Years ago, on my daughter's first birthday, my mother-law, an avid cook, baked her a cake. I don't remember if it was chocolate or layered. What I do remember is forbidding my baby from eating it — not even a nibble. Why, I thought, would I introduce processed sugar into a one-year-old's diet when she'd been perfectly content with avocados and bananas? "Don't you want to see pure joy on her face?" asked one friend. Yeah, sure, but not from frosting.

Needless to say, the birthday cake prohibition triggered a bit of a backlash among some family members, and earned me labels like "rigid" and "crazy."

But these days, with the huge national backlash against sugar — from the new film "Fed Up" and Eve Schaub's popular family memoir, "Year Of No Sugar," to Mark Bittman's regular columns hammering on the message of sugar's toxicity — I feel somewhat vindicated.

Here's a snippet from Bittman's latest, "An Inconvenient Truth About Our Food" on why "Fed Up" is such an important film:

The experts carry the ball. The journalist Gary Taubes calls the “energy balance” theory — the notion that all calories are the same, and that as long as you exercise enough, you’ll avoid gaining or even lose weight no matter what you eat — “nonsense.” One Coke, we learn, will take more than an hour to burn off. The pediatrician Rob Lustig, a leading anti-sugar campaigner, notes that “we have obese 6-month-olds. You wanna tell me that they’re supposed to diet and exercise?” David Ludwig, another M.D., notes that there is no difference between many processed foods and sugar itself, saying you can eat a bowl of cornflakes with no added sugar or a bowl of sugar with no added cornflakes and “below the neck they’re the same thing.” Lustig reminds us that anyone can develop metabolic syndrome: “You can be sick without being fat; this is not just a problem of the obese.”

And so on. Senator Tom Harkin says, “I don’t know how they (the food industry) live with themselves,” comparing them to the tobacco industry. Bill Clinton says, effectively, “We blew it,” when it came to this struggle.

The movie has some splendid moments: A mother cries at the difficulty of the choice she must make between giving her child what she wants and giving her what’s best. Her struggle is common, and she’s fighting against an almost overwhelming tide of marketing and, yes, even addiction. A school lunch worker, speaking of the fact that few kids choose the healthy option at lunch, says, “You can’t choose for them.” But they are children; we must choose for them. Not only are their parents not present, but their parents often don’t know what’s best.

Just to be clear, this isn't simply rationalizing my own personal food obsessions (though there's some of that) or about our cultural sickness around achieving "thigh gap" thinness. It's about overall health — for instance, heart disease.

Just out today, a new analysis headlined: "Sugar implicated in cardiovascular disease risk independent of weight gain." From the news release:

Researchers from New Zealand's University of Otago have uncovered evidence that sugar has a direct effect on risk factors for heart disease, and is likely to impact on blood pressure, independent of weight gain.

Research Fellow with Otago's Department of Human Nutrition Dr Lisa Te Morenga, Professor Jim Mann and colleagues have conducted a review and meta-analysis of all international studies that compared the effects of higher versus lower added sugar consumption on blood pressure and lipids (blood fats or cholesterol) – both of which are important cardiovascular risk-factors.

They located dietary intervention trials published in English-speaking journals between 1965 and 2013, comparing diets where the only intended differences were the amount of sugars and non-sugar carbohydrates consumed by the participants, and which measured the effects of these diets on lipids and blood pressure. They found 37 trials reporting effects on lipids and 12 reporting effects on blood pressure. The findings from the individual trials were then pooled to determine the overall effects from all the studies.

"Our analysis confirmed that sugars contribute to cardiovascular risk, independent of the effect of sugars on body weight," says Dr Te Morenga.

"Although the effects of sugars on blood pressure and lipids are relatively modest, our findings support public health recommendations to reduce added sugar in our diets as one of the measures which might be expected to reduce the global burden of cardiovascular diseases."

Avocado, anyone?

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.

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