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Subtracting added sugar: Society’s sweet addiction and how to fight it

Al Case/Flickr

It’s common knowledge that eating sugar does no favors for a body. But is sugar having worse effects than just adding empty calories to our diets?

Award winning investigative science journalist and cofounder of the Nutrition Science Initiative Gary Taubes discusses the detrimental effects that excessive sugar consumption has on people, and how “excessive” may be actually a lot lower than you might think. Taubes is the author of the new book, "The Case Against Sugar."

For years, dietary fat and salt shouldered the blame for causing heart disease and high blood pressure. But, according to Taubes, the body of evidence supporting that blame is insubstantial. Instead, he points to another culprit:sugar.

Taubes attributes the rise in sugar consumption and subsequent rise in obesity and diabetes in the U.S. to the increased popularity of low fat diets that often substituted fat for sugar in the 1980s.

“Coinciding with the beginning of the [obesity] epidemic, [refined sugars and grains] had become in effect heart healthy diet foods,” Taubes said. “The government was even pushing the food industry to create low fat products, and in order to make those low fat products tasty, the food industry was replacing the fat with sugar and high fructose corn syrup.”

Taubes distinguishes between added sugars and naturally occurring sugars, like those you might get from fruits or vegetables.

“For instance, when we consume the sugar in an apple, a medium sized apple, about 85 percent water, what isn’t water is fiber, which we don’t digest, and then sugar and fructose,” Taubes said. “Most of the apple is water and fiber, which slows down the digestion of the sugars. When you eat an apple you get a relatively small dose of sugar and you digest it slowly.”

Taubes emphasizes the importance of acknowledging that a diet that might benefit one individual might not benefit another. He is of the somewhat controversial belief that people who suffer from obesity or diabetes should avoid eating fruit altogether, because, according to him, the negative effects from the sugar and carbohydrates in the fruit will outweigh the benefits.

“We give public health advice in this country to everyone equally as though they all should be eating the same diet,” Taubes said. “One of the things I’ve been arguing is that in obesity and diabetes, even though fruit would be harmless if not benevolent to a marathon runner, it’s not doing any favors to an obese or diabetic individual.”

For those who aren’t obese or diabetic, Taubes acknowledges that a little bit of added sugar is not hazardous, but he doesn’t encourage it.  He likens the philosophy of “everything in moderation” to allowing recovering cigarette addicts to continue to smoke, so long as they don’t go overboard.

“Smokers will tell you, they can’t imagine life without cigarettes any more than the rest of us can imagine life without smoking,” Taubes said. “We don’t say ‘too many cigarettes cause lung cancer,’ we say ‘cigarettes cause lung cancer.’ We don’t advise smokers to smoke in moderation, we advise smokers not to smoke.”

Taubes holds what he calls another controversial opinion: that reducing overall caloric intake won’t decrease weight. Rather, he places the blame for causing people to be overweight on the type of calories consumed, an unsurprising opinion for the author of a book titled Good Calories, Bad Calories. Specifically, Taubes says the calories that pack on pounds are those from refined carbs and, of course, sugar. He recommends opting for a high-fat, low-carb diet along the lines of the Atkins diet instead.

Taubes is cautiously optimistic about the future of high-fat, low-carb diets, with some doctors already embracing the diet. In order for it to become fully mainstream, he says, medical organizations will have to “acknowledge that they made mistakes.” He says finds it difficult to imagine they’ll do so, but remains positive that the diet will catch on.

“I’m hoping this will be revolution from the bottom up, because patients and individuals can go on these diets and see how well they work themselves,” Taubes said. “Physicians can see that they can finally make their patients healthy rather than giving them drugs to resolve their symptoms.”