April 3, 2012

Sugar: Sweet and... Deadly?

For decades, Americans have waged a kind of war against sugar… and successfully, too. Since the 1970s, sugar consumption is down about 40 percent.

So, mission accomplished, right?

Far from it. Enter the new culprit: high fructose corn syrup. This processed substance gives the foods we eat that tantalizing sweetness we crave. Unfortunately, its effect on our bodies is the same as sugar’s. And that effect, according to Sanjay Gupta’s report that aired on 60 Minutes this past Sunday night, is toxic.

Sugar, Obesity and Diabetes
For years, we’ve heard about our country’s epidemic of obesity, the gateway to a variety of serious health problems. We spend more time sitting inert at home and at work, in front of the TV and computer. We’re embraced a “super-sized,” all-you-can-eat menu that includes over 130 pounds of sugar – in one form or another – per person, every year.

Our bodies convert most foods into glucose. Some foods – the things our ancestors thousands of years ago ate almost exclusively, like meats, beans, vegetables – take a while to metabolize. We also convert whole grains into glucose more slowly, more “naturally.” On the other hand, we convert some things into glucose very quickly, such as sugar, fructose, and other simple carbohydrates, like white flour.

In time, our ability to process all that glucose from simple carbohydrates declines. Overloaded with the insulin our bodies create to deal with the sudden sugar surge in our bloodstreams, our glucose-burning cells eventually develop a kind of immunity to insulin.

What develops next is often called “Metabolic Syndrome,” whose hallmarks are obesity, elevated blood pressure, and high triglycerides (fats in the blood) – all a function of “insulin resistance.” If unchecked, Metabolic Syndrome can lead to diabetes and other conditions.

In the video report, Gupta interviewed Dr. Robert Lustic, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California. Lustic – a crusader against the dangers of sugar – believes the sick, overweight children he treats are suffering primarily because they ingest way too much sugar, including all the high fructose corn syrup in processed foods and drinks.

Lustic also described the insidious addictive character of sugar, likening its effect to alcohol’s. The more we ingest, the more we want. The more accustomed our bodies become to the substance, the more we need to obtain the same pleasurable effect -- the “high”.

Sugar and Heart Disease
There is also compelling evidence that large amounts of sugar and high fructose corn syrup increase our risk of heart disease. According to nutritional biologist Kimber Stanhope, when the liver is drowning in fructose, it converts some of it into fat, which then enters the bloodstream as a type of LDL that can clog arteries with plaque.

Forty years ago, based on studies showing the clear relationship between fats and heart disease, Americans made special – and successful -- efforts to reduce dietary fats, especially saturated fats. Now, Lustic is quick to see the irony:
When you take the fat out of food, it tastes like cardboard," says Dr. Lustig. "And the food industry knew that, so they replaced it with sugar...and guess what? Heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and death are skyrocketing.
Sugar… and Cancer?
Many common cancers – like those of the breast and colon – have insulin receptors that encourage tumors to consume glucose, and therefore grow. According to Lewis Cantley, a Harvard professor and head of Beth Israel Deaconess Cancer Center, these opportunistic tumors take full advantage of the surfeit of insulin: "They have evolved the ability to hijack that flow of glucose that's going by in the bloodstream into the tumor itself," he said.

So, the evidence links sugar and fructose to a host of deadly conditions: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer. When nutritional biologist Stanhope considered the implications of her studies, she told Gupta, "I started eating and drinking a whole lot less sugar."

Here's Gupta's full report on 60 Minutes:

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