Sweet poison: How sugar is killing us (and especially our children)
Sugar – the poison that almost no one talks about – has been in the news these past weeks.
CBC News told us how Canadians consume an average of 26 teaspoons of sugar a day.
The Atlantic magazine published an infographic of what the avergae American consumes each year – which includes 142 lbs of “caloric sweeteners,” 42 lbs of which are corn syrup.
And an American survey showed that parents of fat or obese children don’t want people to call their children fat or obese. (Umm… sorry, then do something about it).
OK, the word “poison” may seem extreme – but read on. All things in moderation. At the high quantities that most North Americans are consuming sugar these days, sugar is a poison.
How shameful it is that our current generation of children is the first that will not live as long as their parents! And that their parents are the ones who are actively doing this to them, by loading them up with sugar.
In Canada, childhood obesity has nearly tripled in the past 30 years. In Japan, childhood obesity has doubled in just a decade – while the incidence of adult obesity has remained steady. This is because, while adults continue to eat their traditional Japanese diet, children in Japan are now being raised on our heavily marketed sugar-heavy “western” diet.
Yes, we can blame the food manufacturers and marketers. But even more, we can blame ourselves. No one is forcing any of us to eat what they are packaging up for us.
Manufacturers are slipping fructose into products that normally did not use to contain added sugars, such as pretzels and hamburger buns. The effect of this is not only to add extra calories to the product; the biochemical effect of too much fructose is far more sinister.
Fructose makes the insulin receptor in your liver stop working, so that insulin levels rise throughout your body. This interferes with brain metabolism of the insulin signal, which then affects the brain’s detection of a hormone called leptin. Leptin is what signals to you that you have eaten enough. Leptin also makes you feel like burning energy. If your brain cannot detect the leptin, not only do you feel like you are starving, and just want to eat – you also don’t feel like exercising.
So the effects of all of this added fructose on our diet are far greater than just the added calories. The whole fructose/leptin/insulin connection is explained in detail in a great ABC Radio interview with Dr. Robert Lustig, Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology at the University of Southern California, SF. While the podcast of the program is not available online, the transcript is. I highly recommend that you take an hour of your life to read it – it will more than come back to you!
So what strategies can we take to avoid added sugars, and especially sugars? Well, the time-consuming one is to do a lot of research, learn what you can and cannot eat and what all of the variants of ingredient names are, and meticulously read ingredient lists.
The easier strategy, though, is just eat food. (I go pretty much by Michael Pollan’s definition of “food”: If your great-grandmother would have known what it is – an apple, a potato, a cut of meat – then it is food. If she would not have recognized it – a Twinkie, a McNugget, a Cheeto – then it is out).
I’ll admit it – I was addicted to sugar throughout my childhood, my teens, my twenties. It was used as a reward food in our home. Saturday was known as “candy day.” If we had been good that week, we got a chocolate bar and a can of pop (sadly, that is now daily fare for so many North American kids). Even after I left home, sugar remined a reward food and a comfort food for me – a treat for completing a big university assignment, or to cheer me up if I was feeling down.
Through my thirties, I decided to cut down on the sugar. I honestly cannot say what really motivated me to do that. I guess I started noticing that I would feel lethargic after a big chocolate chip cookie pig-out. And the logical side of my brain started to realize that sugar had not been available in such quantities for the bulk of humankind’s existence – that our bodies were not evolved to eat it – and I wondered what it might be doing to me.
And now, I rarely eat sugar. Yes, it took years of willpower to get to this stage – but I have broken the addiction. It is no longer a matter of willpower. I no longer desire it. Truly!
That whole sugar/insulin/leptin cycle makes complete sense with my personal experience: I crave good healthy foods, I have no desire to overeat, and I have the energy and desire to exercise. I eat a fair amount of fat in my diet (mainly olive oil and other “healthy” oils), and I have been maintaining my weight for a decade now – in fact, just found out this summer that I have even lost weight – without trying! I have more energy I than I have ever had and, at age 47, I am in the best physical shape of my life!
In that radio show, Dr. Lustig calls fructose a hepato-toxin, or liver toxin. “We’re being poisoned to death,” he says. “That’s a very strong statement – but I think we can back it up with very clear scientific evidence.” He goes on to talk about how children are now being diagnosed with Fatty Liver Disease – a disease once only found in alcoholics. To me, this is not only scary, it is inexcusable behaviour on the part of their parents – their supposed care-givers and nurturers.
Read that transcript. Stop poisoning yourself. And, especially, stop poisoning your children.