Why sugar has a bad rep

Ex­perts now be­lieve that eat­ing less sugar is the big­gest and best life­style change you can make. Here’s why


WE ALL know we should eat less of it. Too much sugar rots your teeth and makes you pile on the ki­los. But it’s dif­fi­cult – be­cause sweet stuff just tastes so darn good. It’s also dif­fi­cult to avoid. It’s in ev­ery­thing from bread and may­on­naise to chut­ney and salad dress­ing, never mind all the tra­di­tional sweet temp­ta­tions such as choco­late, cake and ice cream.

But there’s no doubt sugar is be­com­ing more and more of a health is­sue, and in re­cent years peo­ple have been call­ing it the new tobacco.

Many re­spected doc­tors are adding their voices to the growing anti-sugar cru­sade. One of the most vo­cal is lead­ing Bri­tish car­di­ol­o­gist Dr Aseem Mal­ho­tra, who him­self used to fol­low a diet that “re­volved around car­bo­hy­drates”. Sugar is, of course, a car­bo­hy­drate.

“Sug­ared ce­real, toast and or­ange juice for break­fast, a panini for lunch and pasta for din­ner was not an un­com­mon daily menu,” he says on his web­site. He was a keen sports­man and run­ner and con­sid­ered carbs “a good, solid fuel”. That was, af­ter all, the con­ven­tional wis­dom at the time.

But about eight years ago, af­ter a com­ment by a pa­tient in hospi­tal about the burger and chips he was served af­ter hav­ing just had surgery to un­block an artery, Mal­ho­tra started look­ing into the link be­tween nu­tri­tion and health.

What he dis­cov­ered turned just about ev­ery­thing he’d learnt on its head. “I read all the re­search I could and con­cluded that sim­ple life­style changes such as con­sum­ing less sugar were more pow­er­ful than any med­i­ca­tion doc­tors can pre­scribe.”

He’s also ex­pe­ri­enced the ben­e­fits first-hand. He used to keep his fat in­take low, some­thing he ad­vised his pa­tients to do as well. But af­ter chang­ing from a low-fat diet to a low-carb, high-fat one, he lost the fat around his stom­ach which no amount of ex­er­cise had been able to shift.

“The more I looked into it, the more it be­came abun­dantly clear to me that it was sugar, not fat, which was caus­ing so many of our prob­lems.”

This think­ing isn’t new – many ex­perts have said as much in re­cent years – but the voices of dis­sent are be­com­ing louder.

Af­ter ex­ten­sively re­search­ing the causes of obe­sity, Mal­ho­tra be­came a found­ing mem­ber of Ac­tion on Sugar, a UK pres­sure group cam­paign­ing to get the food in­dus­try to re­duce added sugar in pro­cessed foods. The group has called for the sugar tax on soft drinks in the UK to cover all con­fec­tionary prod­ucts – in other words, any food prod­uct high in sugar.

South Africa’s sugar tax, which came into ef­fect on 1 April, tar­gets sug­ary drinks and is equiv­a­lent to a levy of about 11% on a can. One 500ml bot­tle of a typ­i­cal soft drink con­tains about 10 tea­spoons of sugar – al­most dou­ble the in­take of six tea­spoons a day rec­om­mended by the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Some say not all sug­ars are cre­ated equal. There’s nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring sugar such as that found in fruit, honey and even milk – and these come with some health ben­e­fits, such as the es­sen­tial nutri­ents in these foods. Then there’s added sugar, which in­cludes any sugar or sweet­ener added to foods and bev­er­ages dur­ing pro­cess­ing or prepa­ra­tion.

But for some, all sug­ars are bad. In­ves­tiga­tive science and health writer Gary Taubes be­lieves so strongly that sugar is slowly killing us he’s writ­ten a book about it. In The Case Against Sugar the award-win­ning Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist frames his ar­gu­ment like a lawyer putting to­gether a case for the pros­e­cu­tion.

The crime is to­day’s epi­demic of type 2 di­a­betes and obe­sity, he says. The cul­prit: sugar. But it’s a com44

plex, mul­ti­lay­ered case with plenty of smoke­screens. The death isn’t sud­den and dra­matic, so there’s no el­e­ment of shock and hor­ror. In­stead it’s slow. So in­cred­i­bly slow, in fact, that the crime has gone mostly un­no­ticed.

An even big­ger prob­lem is that we love the killer. We wel­come it at every cel­e­bra­tion we have, we use it to show love and to treat and re­ward our­selves. What’s more, it lit­er­ally makes us happy – eat some­thing sweet and your brain’s plea­sure cen­tre ex­pe­ri­ences a rush.

Hard as it is to say no to sugar, Taubes be­lieves it’s what we should do if we want to be health­ier. He no longer touches the stuff. “I don’t eat grains, starches and sug­ars any­more be­cause I think they make me fat and un­healthy. I re­place them with fatty an­i­mal prod­ucts.” THE SUGAR-FAT CON­NEC­TION Taubes, who’s been writing about diet and chronic ill­ness for close to three decades, be­lieves sugar isn’t just the root cause of to­day’s di­a­betes and obe­sity epi­demics, but that it’s also re­lated to heart dis­ease, hy­per­ten­sion, Alzheimer’s and many com­mon can­cers.

In 2002 he wrote a ground­break­ing ar­ti­cle that was pub­lished in The New York Times ti­tled What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie? He ar­gued that decades’ worth of gov­ern­ment-ap­proved nu­tri­tional ad­vice at­tack­ing fat and prais­ing car­bo­hy­drates was wrong.

He was at­tacked by many in the medical and re­search com­mu­nity but car­ried on in­ves­ti­gat­ing the is­sue even more ex­ten­sively and went on to pub­lish the books Good Calo­ries, Bad Calo­ries in 2007 and Why We Get Fat in 2011.

In the lat­ter he ar­gues that fat was made pub­lic en­emy No 1 thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of bad science and the in­flu­ence of the pro­cessed food in­dus­try, while re­search into the ef­fect of car­bo­hy­drates on the hu­man body was largely ne­glected. In The Case Against Sugar he puts the spotlight on sugar as the true cul­prit be­hind the “di­a­besity” epi­demic and ex­plains how and why it’s been cov­ered up. Call­ing it a cover-up isn’t an ex­ag­ger­a­tion. In 2016 a re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Fran­cisco, un­cov­ered doc­u­ments that showed that in the ’60s the sugar in­dus­try paid three Har­vard sci­en­tists to play down the con­nec­tion be­tween sugar and heart dis­ease and in­stead point the fin­ger at sat­u­rated fat. The cover-up has been so suc­cess­ful that many peo­ple still be­lieve a low-fat, low-choles­terol diet is vi­tal for heart health. “It’s been the cor­ner­stone of gov­ern­ment and pub­lic health mes­sages since the ’60s,” Mal­ho­tra says on his web­site, adding that this has led to mis­in­formed doc­tors and mis­in­formed pa­tients. “The re­sult is a na­tion of over­med­i­cated sugar ad­dicts who are eat­ing and pill-pop­ping their way to years of mis­ery with chronic de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­eases and an early grave. “It’s why I very sel­dom touch bread, have got rid of all added sug­ars and have em­braced full fat as part of a var­ied Mediter­ranean-in­spired diet.” THE TIDE IS TURN­ING An­other doc­tor who’s made an about­turn in his view on di­etary fat and sugar is Dr Peter Brukner, an Australian sports medicine physi­cian and doc­tor to the Australian cricket team. His story par­al­lels that of SA’s fore­most low-carb, high-fat ad­vo­cate, Pro­fes­sor Tim Noakes. Faced with a di­a­betes di­ag­no­sis, Brukner re­searched nu­tri­tion, obe­sity and di­a­betes and came to the shock­ing re­al­i­sa­tion that the the food pyra­mid and the di­etary guide­lines he’d been liv­ing by have no sci­en­tific ba­sis.

So he switched to a low-carb, healthy-fat life­style and as a re­sult dropped 13kg, low­ered his in­sulin lev­els and dras­ti­cally im­proved his liver func­tion.

He’s just re­leased a book called Fat Lot of Good, de­tail­ing sim­ple changes peo­ple can make to lose weight and im­prove their well­be­ing. One of those changes is cut­ting down on sugar.

“There’s a lot of con­fu­sion out there about what to eat,” he said at a pub­lic health con­fer­ence in Manch­ester in the UK last year.

“There are so many di­ets out there – there’s low-carb and Pa­leo and Atkins and Mediter­ranean and peo­ple have gone from hav­ing a clear idea about what they should be eat­ing [low fat and high carb as per the guide­lines] to be­ing con­fronted with all these dif­fer­ent di­ets. But the one thing these di­ets have in com­mon, and even di­eti­tians would agree, is dras­ti­cally cut­ting down on sugar.”

Re­duc­ing sugar in­take, Brukner says, is the sin­gle most im­por­tant in­ter­ven­tion for im­prov­ing health – which is why he’s co-founded the Su­garByHalf cam­paign in Aus­tralia.

“The av­er­age Australian con­sumes around 16 tea­spoons of added sugar a day – teenagers a lot more – and if we can re­duce that by half, it can have a mas­sive im­pact on the health of Aus­tralians.

“I can’t think of any other sin­gle in­ter­ven­tion – medical, phar­ma­co­log­i­cal, sur­gi­cal – that would have the same im­pact as sim­ply cut­ting sugar in­take by half.”

Don’t miss next week’s is­sue for ad­vice on how to cut your sugar in­take.

Science jour­nal­ist Gary Taubes be­lieves so strongly that sugar is a killer he’s writ­ten a book about it (RIGHT).

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