Call For A National Campaign Against Sugar

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By Karen Weintraub
Guest contributor

Did you add a packet or two of sugar to your morning coffee? Grab a mid-morning Coke? Eat dessert with lunch?

For typical Americans, sugar accounts for more than 600 of their daily calories.

Such high levels are so incredibly dangerous, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco write in a commentary in today’s Nature, that we need to launch a national campaign against the powdery white stuff.

[module align="left" width="half" type="pull-quote"]But do we really need government in our sugar bowl?[/module]

Laura A. Schmidt, a professor at UCSF and one of the commentary’s three authors, compared eating lots of sugar to chain smoking and binge drinking. Sugar creates the same rush in the brain as drugs, and can also be addictive, she said, citing the obese kids in her clinic who constantly complain of hunger. Many of the metabolic problems we blame on obesity –- heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes –- are really the fault of sugar consumption, she and her colleagues wrote.

And society is paying a fortune to cope with health problems the UCSF trio blames on our sugar overload. The group estimates that Americans pay $150 billion a year in obesity-related health care expenses.

“The social costs to the whole society are great enough that we all have a stake in preventing the harm,” Schmidt said, just as we’re justified in restricting who can buy alcohol and cigarettes, where you can smoke, and how much you can drink before you can drive.

To limit sugar consumption, Schmidt and her colleagues called for high taxes on soda and other sweetened, processed foods; tightened licensing requirements for vending machines and snack bars to limit sugary foods; and government promotion of healthier foods through food stamps and school lunch programs.

But do we really need government in our sugar bowl?

Yes, says Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital and a tobacco control expert (and, in the interest of full disclosure, a long-time friend).
Winickoff said an anti-sugar campaign wouldn’t be about government telling us what to do – but rather about giving us back the choice of what to eat.

“The real issue is not individual choice but corporate greed,” Winickoff said. “And so, solving the problem is really going to be as much about going after the multinational corporations whose goal is to encourage an overweight and over-consuming, fructose-loving American public. That’s their goal, because that is the way that they maximize profits for the their executives and shareholders.”

Right now, particularly in lower-income communities, it’s nearly impossible to eat well. Grocery stores are tiny and loaded with junk; ubiquitous ads proclaim the glory of sugary foods, he said.

Sugar plus cigarettes appears to be particularly harmful. Winickoff’s research shows that overweight teenagers exposed to smoke are more likely to have health problems than normal weight teens; double exposure is harmful to adults, too.

Not everyone agrees that sugar is the enemy, though.

Marlene Lesson, a registered dietician and diabetes educator, and the nutrition director of Wellspring at Structure House, a residential treatment center for weight control in Durham, N.C., said the health problems of obesity go far beyond sugar consumption.

To lower blood pressure, for instance, the National Institutes of Health advocates weight loss, exercise, and a diet high in fruits and vegetables. Sugar isn’t on the list. The American Heart Association’s guidelines for bringing down “bad” cholesterol talk about reducing saturated fat from meat, losing weight, eating more plants and fiber – but say nothing about sugar, she said.

“I trust that the major medical and health organizations take the whole body of knowledge and put it in perspective,” she said. “I’m sure there’s some really provocative research [on the dangers of sugar], but when you put it in perspective of the whole body of knowledge, it’s a more minor player.”

The diet at Structure House, includes lots of fruits and vegetables and minimal sugar, she said, but most of her clients already avoid desserts and sugary drinks.

The American Beverage Association reached out to me this afternoon after this was posted to make sure their point of view was represented. Not surprisingly, the industry group doesn't like the idea of adding drink taxes, and also took issue with the UCSF group's science.

"There is no evidence that focusing solely on reducing sugar intake would have any meaningful public health impact," the association said in a prepared statement. "Consumers do not support these taxes and recognize them for what they truly are – a money grab to raise revenue."

So, should you avoid sugar and call your Congressional representative?

Personally, I’m sure the dangers of obesity go beyond sugar consumption, but there’s enough research to suggest that added sugar alone is bad – even for people who aren’t overweight. From what I’ve seen, the data look stronger for the dangers of sugar than for salt. Skipping heavily processed foods helps avoid both.

In Massachusetts, legislation is pending to eliminate the tax-exempt status of soft drinks and candy. This would be one step in the direction that Schmidt and Winickoff recommend — if lawmakers come down on their side.

This program aired on February 1, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.