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).