Category Archives: Sugar and Obesity

Fructose and the Ubiquity of Added Sugar

Since realizing that sugar, and not fat, was the major problem in the modern Western diet, The Skeptical Cardiologist has been ratcheting down how much sugar he consumes to the smallest possible amount.

This has lowered what I like to call my “sugarstat,” and has made me exquisitely sensitive to the presence of added sugar in foods.

With this sensitivity comes the heightened realization that added sugar is everywhere.

The obvious sources are soft drinks and other sweetened beverages, candy, cakes, pies, cookies, donuts and fruit juices. Once you mostly eliminate such things from your diet you become aware of the “background” levels of added sugar in other foods.

For example, when I consume what many Americans probably perceive as a “healthy” granola bar (from even the most natural or organic of manufacturers), all I can taste is a sickly sugar taste overwhelming all the other ingredients.

Low-fat yogurt (which I have compared unfavorably to a Snickers Bar here) tastes like pure sugar mixed with odd chemicals and a vague dairy flavor.

Seemingly healthy sushi tastes too sweet to me as it turns out to have lots of sugar mixed in  the rice and the popular eel sauce is mostly made up of sugar.

Most annoying  is the current trend for restaurants to put a “balsamic glaze” loaded with sugar on perfectly good vegetables like brussel sprouts, ruining them for me.

Fructose and Processed Foods

A review article in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings (1) this month presents the case for fructose (from glucose and high-fructose corn syrup) being the major cause of our obesity and diabetes epidemics and thus, the major contributor to cardiovascular disease in the US.

Fructose is a monosaccharide that combines with the monosaccharide glucose to form sucrose, which is what most people recognize as sugar.

Processed foods commonly contain a lot of added fructose-containing sugar but also, increasingly they contain high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which contains up to 65% fructose.

Large intake of fructose goes hand in hand with consumption of processed foods. Approximately 75% of all foods and beverages in the US contain added sugars. Consumption of added sugar by Americans increased from 4 lbs per person per year to 120 lbs per person per year between 1776 and 1994.

Thanks to a dramatic increase in sugar-sweetened beverages, American teenagers consume about 72 grams of fructose daily.

There are a substantial amount of observational, short-term basic science, and clinical trial data suggesting that all this added sugar, especially fructose, are posing a serious public health problem.

The article presents these data in detail and I’ll summarize the major points as follows:

  1. Fructose is the likely component of sucrose and HFCS that promotes insulin resistance.
  2. In animals and humans, replacement of starch (chains of glucose) with sucrose or fructose causes increase glucose and insulin levels and reduced insulin sensitivity.
  3. Fructose stimulates epigenetic changes and metabolic alterations that shunt calories into storage depots in abdominal fat cells.

In simpler language, fructose promotes abdominal fat build-up and makes you more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.

Fruits and Fructose

I’m sure many of you are thinking, “but fructose is the major sugar in fruit, should I stop eating fruit?”

The answer is NO! The fructose in fruit is not highly concentrated. Fructose makes up 1% of the weight of a pear for example. It is combined with all of the good things, including fiber and phytonutrients and vitamins, that make fruit good for you.

Eliminating added fructose (sugar and HFCS) is by far the simplest thing you can do diet wise to improve your health. If you avoid added fructose, you will be cutting out a lot of the processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages which have no nutritional value but contribute to obesity and diabetes.

Fructose as Toxin

preserves
Real fruit (right) and “Just Fruit Spread” (left). Note the attempts to make the spread appear healthy by announcing that it is “non-GMO”, glutan-free, “organic” and “perfectly sweetened with fair trade cane sugar”. Cane juice is added sugar .

Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist has talked and written extensively about fructose as a “toxin.” You can watch him here. He’s also published a lot of books on the topic including one which identifies the 56 names under which sugar masquerades.

It’s probably not worth buying that book, but keep in mind that agave and evaporated cane juice are just different forms of sugar. Makers of organic and “natural” foods are   as guilty as food industry giants at adding sugar, but they try to pretend that “natural” sources of sugar are somehow better for you.

I don’t think the science on fructose is totally settled, however, and another recent review (from scientists not funded by the food industry) concluded:

“current evidence on the metabolic effects of fructose, as consumed by the majority of populations, is insufficient to demonstrate such a role in metabolic diseases and the global obesity epidemic”

Skeptically Yours,

Anthony C. Pearson, MD, FACC

1. Added Fructose: A Principal Driver of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus and Its Consequences. Mayo Clin Proc. 2015:90(3);372-381. DiNicolantonio, JJ, O’Keefe, JH and Lucan SC

Smoothies: Kings of Sugar Masquerading As Healthy Food Choice

I have had a vague interaction with smoothies in the past, but after a recent jam session with my bassist daughter and drummer son, my daughter enthusiastically recommended we get a smoothie. “Smoothie” was entered into the Apple map app and a remarkable number of establishments serving this concoction popped up.

Smoothie sales have taken off in the last decade as consumers are apparently seeking healthier alternatives to carbonated beverages.

This was my first experience with Smoothie King which is the biggest and oldest chain of smoothie purveyors. According to their web site:

Since Steve Kuhnau created the first Smoothie Bar in 1973, Smoothie King has grown to over 650 locations across three continents. From the US to the Republic of Korea, Singapore and the Cayman Islands, our purpose continues to impact millions of lives around the globe.

Our quest is simple: Make living a healthier more active lifestyle delicious and nutritious. Whether you’re trying to lose a few pounds, have a little more energy at the end of the day or simply feel better about your diet, each and every Smoothie we make is blended for a specific purpose. Which is why we call them “Smoothies With A Purpose.”

This sounds spectacularly good: who wouldn’t want to lose a few pounds, have more energy at the end of the day and feel better about their diet.

Smoothie-King-New-Store-Design-interiorThe Smoothie King store was disturbingly sterile with an intense corporate feeling and had a bewildering array of choices. I could choose from Fitness Blends, Energy Blends, Slim Blends, Wellness Blends or Take a Break Blends.

 

There are 17 “Slim Blends” to choose from. The Angel Food  (“treat your body like an angel”(I have no idea what that means)) Slim Blend contains 350 calories, 84 grams of carbohydrates, 75 grams of sugar, 4 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fiber. This comes from strawberries (I saw no real strawberries behind the counter),bananas, non-fat milk (when I asked about getting whole milk the girl behind the counter told me that they didn’t even use real non-fat milk just a powder), vanilla, turbinado (fancy and deceptive word for brown sugar) and soy protein.

What’s wrong with this? A smoothie from SmoothieKing marketed as a Slim Blend contains 75 grams of sugar, the equivalent of 19 cubes of sugar. There only 39 grams of sugar in a 12 ounce coca-cola thus the small 20 oz “Slim Blend” contains the equivalent of two cans of coca-cola in sugar. There may be some useful nutrients in this monstrosity but predominantly you are getting loads of sugar in a highly concentrated form.

As I’ve pointed out here and here, there is reason to believe that sugar contributes more to obesity and heart disease than fat. Its hard to understand how this Slim Blend would contribute to weight loss in any way. It is just another stealth dessert similar to what Starbucks promotes as I’ve discussed here. What the food industry has done to smoothies is eerily similar to what happened to yogurt which I call the no fat  yogurt scam.

Most people have figured out for good weight control and health they should avoid sodas and sugar-sweetened beverages (even my 19 year old daughter has) but smoothies are masquerading as healthy choices for slimming, for fitness or wellness when they are (in the case of ones from SmoothieKing and presumably most similar chains) an absolutely horrible dietary choice.

What we have here is the classic food industry approach to marketing: Take real food ingredients like fruits, which are healthy choices when consumed in their original state, process  them, industrialize them, add sugar and promote them as healthier dietary choices.

Add in the veneer of promoting fitness or weight loss or wellness by adding magically powerful elixirs or powders and  the duped public will line up and sales will skyrocket. Unfortunately, despite claims of health benefits, consumers will end up less healthy.

 

 

 

 

 

Are You Fed Up With Sugar?

A new documentary  movie, Fed UP, released May 9 and a   New York Times Editorial published  today are helping to focus the country’s attention on a new paradigm for what makes us fat and the importance of added sugar in causing obesity and chronic diseases. I highly recommend both viewing the movie and reading the editorial.

As I’ve pointed out here and here and as eloquently summarized by Gary Taubes in “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why We Get Fat”, the concept of replacing fat with carbohydrates is not making America healthier.

The NY Times editorial and an article published by the same authors in JAMA focus on an alternative view of why people get fat. The generally accepted view is based on the (seemingly immutable)  first law of thermodynamics, that you gain weight because you have consumed more calories than you have burned with exercise. People get fat due to lack of willpower in either consuming too many calories or not exercising enough. In this paradigm, all calories are equal in their effects. To lose weight you merely need to cut back on how many calories you consume. Unfortunately, calorie restriction for weight loss fails almost all the time.

 

The alternative view of obesity posits that underlying genetic factors exacerbated by lifestyle factors such as inadequate sleep, stress and by poor quality of diet are the major reasons for obesity. These factors lead to increase in fat storage which , in turn, means less metabolic fuels available for activity. This causes an increase in hunger and a reduction in metabolic activity, muscular efficiency and physical activity.  The combination of increased energy intake and reduced energy expenditure causes obesity.

Insulin is the major hormone involved in fat metabolism and of all the things we eat highly refined and rapidly digestible carbohydrates cause the greatest insulin response. Thus, the authors write 

By this way of thinking, the increasing amount and processing of carbohydrates in the American diet has increased insulin levels, put fat cells into storage overdrive and elicited obesity-promoting biological responses in a large number of people. Like an infection that raises the body temperature set point, high consumption of refined carbohydrates — chips, crackers, cakes, soft drinks, sugary breakfast cereals and even white rice and bread — has increased body weights throughout the population.

Fed Up, the movie, focuses on how American diets became awash in added sugar and what the consequences of that has been. Dr. Robert Lustig a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco is an advisor to the film and has spoken and written eloquently on this new paradigm for obesity and the dangers of processed food, fructose and sugar as in this video.

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Here’s the trailer for Fed Up.

The film has a limited release and may not be showing in your town,  but you can check out some actions the film’s web site proposes  (supporting a proposed tax on soda and  sugary beverages, investigating your school’s nutrition policy, taking a 10 day no-sugar challenge) here.