Apr 18, 2011

Is sugar toxic? The answer is no.

A few days after Matt Stone's sugar post, Gary Taubes wrote a 9 page article/novella on his carbophobic musings for the New York Times. I don't think this is a coincidence. Matt's post may have struck a nerve in the low-carb crowd.

The piece is titled "Is Sugar Toxic?", a rhetorical question, because calling an article "Sugar is toxic" is too abrasive and ridiculous. I'm not saying he put much thought into the title, but that when you believe such a ridiculous thing, phrasing it as a question helps to make your own bias more subtle.

More importantly, I see this as perhaps a change in strategy for low-carbers like Taubes. They have insisted that people believe the pseudoscientific theory behind obesity that carbs spike insulin which induces fat gain, and that calories do not make people fat. But that absurd pill is very hard to swallow because many people are not that stupid to fall for the idea that you could eat all the fat you want in excess and not gain weight.

People could say, I eat some fruit, but I don't eat too much of it, or I consume some sugar, but I do it in moderation, I eat starches, but I don't base my diet around them, but that's not enough. Eating carbs "in moderation" is still not enough, because Taubes wants people to eat a low-carb diet. He wants us to become a planet of walking, talking ketones with breath that smells like vinegar. The only way for people to accept it is to believe that sugar (and all carbs) is a toxin that must be minimized.

Of course, it is hard to demonize carbs and sugar in particular as a toxin when our body primarily relies on glucose, a simple sugar, for fuel.

Is high-fructose corn syrup a very processed product? Sure it is. The processing may render it "toxic", but then again many things have the potential of becoming toxic. Oils and fats can be highly processed and contaminated as well. But if HFCS is toxic, it is not because it is sugar, it is because of the processing and contamination. Honey has a similar sugar composition of fructose and glucose to HFCS, yet the health promoting benefit of honey (in moderation) is well known.

Because of the concern around HFCS, a new trend emerged, the demonization of fructose. Suddenly, people came to believe the problem arose when corn syrup, which is almost pure glucose, is enzymatically changed to fructose and glucose. So the problem must be fructose, and therefore, since fructose is "the fruit sugar" (fructose is also found in root vegetables and even small amounts in nuts) fruit must be making us fat, fruit must be part of the problem of declining health, responsible for obesity, cancer and diabetes. While this may be seen as a great coup, it merely shows the absurdity that underlines the low-carb movement's goals of demonizing particularly healthy sources of carbohydrates. No, it can't simply be that HFCS in soft drinks is empty calories, and using that for hydration causes weight gain because of those excess calories, it has to be the fructose.

Does fruit make us fat? Is asking that question an insult to our intelligence? Well, let's examine the issue. There is no question that fruit, like any other food, consumed in caloric excess in a sedentary lifestyle, will cause fat gain. But Gary Taubes believes that fruit has special fattening properties.

Gary Taubes is pushing the fruit-phobia more and more. He recently declared to a room full of Tufts University nutritionists that "Americans became fat from fruit", a bizarre assertion given that Americans' consumption of fruit (obese Americans in particular) tends to be very low. Yet the nutritionists were not buying that fruit, and other healthy sources of carbs, could be the culprit behind the obesity problem in America. In fact, they were insulted, as Gary notes:

“I think I may have insulted much of the faculty by giving the lecture from the standpoint that I knew the truth and they don’t.’’

No, that's not why they were insulted. People have different opinions they believe as the truth. They were insulted by your beliefs, not the way in which you explained them. You're asking nutritionists, to tell people to cut out healthy foods such as whole grains, root vegetables, and fruit because it makes people fat, and to tell people to go on ad libitum low-carb diets where they don't count calories, because carbohydrates make people fat, not calories. Even more absurd, Taubes bashes exercise, believing it to be a factor in obesity. Millions of people who have done it the conventional way (eat less, move more) and have lost weight, are wrong, according to him. So how did they lose the weight? How do people who eat a significant amount of carbs on a calorie restricted diet lose weight? Magic spells? Must be.

There are healthy sources of sugar and not so healthy ones. Eating a lot of refined sugar isn't a good idea, but bashing healthy sources of sugar and carbs is not necessary. It is like comparing trans fats to all fats. Eating a healthier diet (than the average diet) is a good thing. Avoid diet "trends", stick to the what is tried, tested and true. And we all know that to be eating less, exercising more, and eating healthier.