Sugar isn't healthy. That's a fact most people don't deny. But is the sweetener the worst thing in the American diet? According to a vocal minority of researchers, that's exactly the case. Led by University of California Endocrinologist Robert Lustig, these experts claim that sugar is the primary cause of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even some cancers.
What's more, the theory appears to be going mainstream. Major news outlets are giving the sugar-chronic disease link serious attention, and not in order to disprove it.
During a 60 Minutes feature on the issue, Lustig told CBS that sugar, whether sucrose (table sugar) or High Fructose Corn Syrup, is toxic, and should be treated no differently than alcohol or tobacco. "Ultimately, this is a public health crisis ... you have to do big things and you have to do them across the board," Lustig said. "Tobacco and alcohol are perfect examples. "I think sugar belongs in this exact same wastebasket."
CBS is only the most recent outlet to draw attention to the idea that sugar is actually toxic. The New York Times Magazine and the prominent science journal Nature have also given voice to Lustig and other defenders of the theory. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also announced last month that Americans are getting too many calories from sugar, though their warning isn't as ominous as Lustig's. But most importantly, the public appears to be responding. Lustig's 2009 lecture detailing the science in support of his controversial argument has received more than 2 million views.
For over 50 years, the standard dietary advice has dictated that we should reduce our fat consumption, maintain a low-calorie diet, and exercise. If Lustig is correct, that advice is flawed and inadequate. Under this alternative paradigm, saturated fat isn't harmful. In fact, it's nutritious. Furthermore, since our bodies metabolize sugar and fat differently, a calorie isn't just a calorie, and thus there's more to the equation than eating less and exercising more.
Interestingly enough, this was common knowledge for many years. Indeed, for many thousands of years humans and our ancestors ate very little sugar. It literally took the force of the federal government to change our minds, and they had largely succeeded by the end of the 1970s. Now, however, the fight over what constitutes a healthy diet is raging again. And it won't end quietly.
Upsetting the conventional wisdom usually isn't a smooth process. In this case, many people are putting up a fight. The adorably named Center For Consumer Freedom and other food and beverage lobbying groups, for example, have launched carefully orchestrated protest in response to the research. The idea that a key ingredient in so many foods is the cause of chronic disease naturally doesn't sit well with them. But except to reiterate that "'calories in' have to equal 'calories out' to avoid weight gain," they have offered little in the way of a substantive response to Lustig's argument.
Researchers and policy advocates on different sides of the debate will continue battling it out. And of course, treating sugar like vodka or cigarettes is a policy we should weigh carefully before enacting, if we do at all. But a few things are becoming clear as time goes on.
First, the longstanding dietary guidelines oversimplify what the available evidence tells us about healthy eating and exercise, and the media and public are beginning to pick up on this fact. Secondly, it's no longer heresy to suggest that a diet lacking carbohydrates and sugar is healthy. Hopefully, in the near future, that will become the accepted wisdom, again.