Our War on Sugar

Midterm Test

We’re at the midpoint of the year:  26 Healthy Changes delivered, 26 to go.  It’s a good time for reflection  I think we’re making progress in our modest goal of changing the world.  Last night I Googled the search term “Word of Wisdom.”  Thanks to you readers, of the 11 million results we were #2, a new high.  Only Wikipedia beat us.  To me it’s a big deal; in the Olympics that’s a silver medal. Now we just have to pass Wikipedia. 

Our stated goal is to change the world and according to Google, we’re doing just that.  But change is an action verb.  We write these charming posts not to entertain but to create change.  Talking is easy—doing is hard.  So we press on—in the next post we’ll ask you to score yourself on how many Healthy Changes you’re actually living.  Get ready.

A Public Dialog

Have you followed the recent discussion about calories and diet?  It involves three people—a physician/scientist, a chef turned food writer, and a serious journalist:

David Ludwig, MD, PhD:  Ludwig studies and treats child obesity.  A while back he made a controversial statement:  Severely obese children should be removed from the care of their parents.  One Ludwig study showed the risk of obesity jumped 60% with each daily soft drink.  

Ludwig’s most recent study evaluated three diets for their ability to keep weight off, once it has been lost.  This is important because in nearly all cases, when dieting loses weight, it is later regained.  The three diets were:

  1. The standard low-fat diet you often hear recommended,
  2. An ultra-low carb (Atkins) diet, and
  3. A low-glycemic diet of vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole grains (basically, the WOWL diet).

The low-fat diet did the worst, so it’s time to move away from the bad advice of the last generation.  The Atkins diet did best but with the complication of higher inflammation (measured by c-reactive protein) and cortisol (the stress hormone).  The low-glycemic diet (basically, the WOWL dietary) offered the best combination of weight loss and freedom from side effects. 

Mark Bittman:  Is a chef turned author who writes for the N.Y. Times.  He gave his take on Ludwig’s study in an article titled, “Which Diet Works.”  Bittman said, “Over the long term, the low-glycemic (WOWL, or whole foods) diet appears to work best . . . . The message is pretty simple: unprocessed foods give you a better chance of idealizing your weight—and your health.”  I like the simplicity of this; if you eat healthy you’ll have a healthy weight.  We won’t all look the same, that would be boring and unnatural, but we’ll be our healthiest.

Gary Taubes:  A serious researcher and journalist, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, the definitive work linking sugar and highly processed foods to obesity, diabetes (type 2, not type 1 which afflicts some children for unknown reasons), and chronic disease, weighed in next.  His N.Y Times article, titled “What Really Makes Us Fat” attacked our fascination with calories and calorie counting. 

Taubes doesn’t believe in the equality of calories—some are good and some, in his view, are bad for you.  He spent six years researching his book, an attack on America’s sugar addiction, and he’s pretty convinced the first step to improving our nation’s health is to eat less sugar.  So am I—counting calories won't take the place of eating real whole foods.  

The Inequality of Calories

When America’s overweight problem is discussed the calorie truism, based on the 1st Law of Thermodynamics—which speaks to the conservation of energy—is usually mentioned.  "A calorie is a calorie," you hear that a lot.  Sometimes so-called experts simply say, “Calories in, calories out.”  They mean overweight is the simple result of eating more calories than you burn.  Or you hear this guidance: “Eat less, move more.”  But is it that simple?  If you’re a regular reader of this blog you know better. 

I took thermodynamics in college—taught by Dr. Milton Willie, a brilliant and caring teacher—and I believe in the first law.  But, because of the complexity of nutrition, I’ve never believed in the equality of calories.  Think about it:  Will a calorie from a carrot have the same effect in your body as a calorie from a soft drink?  Of course not—so stop counting calories and focus on your daily servings of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and a little meat. 

Our War on Sugar

As a young man I remember standing by the railroad track of a small town in rural Guatemala.  Lumbering past were car after car overflowing with sugar cane.  It was the time of the sugar cane harvest.  The harvest seemed a good thing, a blessing for the local economy.  Before that I remember watching long trains loaded with sugar beets in Davis, California.  And years later watching trucks load an Illinois corn harvest into massive tanks labeled, "high fructose."  These were all about the same thing: supplying our growing sugar gluttony.  Now we know that more and more sugar isn’t a good thing.  Our annual intake of about 100 lbs of sugar should be slashed to at least 20-30 lbs, per the AHA, to reduce our risk of overweight, diabetes, heart problems, and other chronic diseases. 

Of the 52 Healthy Changes, four have the goal of reducing our intake of sugar.  Here are the four strategies for reducing sugar intake:

  • Our first Healthy Change went after soft drinks, the leading source of refined and artificial sugar: If you consume sugary drinks, real or diet, limit yourself to one (12 oz.) serving per week. 
  • Healthy Change #10 was about grains and attacked the practice of removing natural fiber and adding sugar to grain products, beginning with bread but including breakfast cereal also:  Your daily bread must be whole grain with more natural fiber (see the nutrition panel) than added sugar. The mantra "more fiber than added sugar," drives us to eat whole foods.
  • This week’s Healthy Change goes after the American love for candy: Enjoy your candy a piece at a time; never bring a bag or box into the home.  I like candy as a treat, but it should be a treat, not a habit.
  • The final sugar strategy suggests a way to enjoy chocolate without gorging on sugar: Enjoy dark (70%) chocolate, with fruit and nuts. 

Please comment:  How do you manage sugar in your life?  How have you gotten past the false belief that artificial sweeteners like those in “diet” drinks—such a sad, pathetic name—are somehow healthier than real food?  Oh yes, happy 4th of July.  It's a great country but eating right would make it way better.

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Reader Comments (8)

Skip -- wouldn't a lessening of corn based products tie in with this study? Corn is so pervasive in our food supply that it should share some of the fault of the MAD, don't you think?

The further I dig into the Farm Bill the more I want to go into hiding! Big Food doesn't have us, the General Public, in it's best interests, and I'm angry that so little goes towards basic staple crops and instead goes towards crops that become highly processed garbage. If this doesn't end now, when?

July 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLizA

I started reading your blog a few months ago because I needed to figure out a way to get my husband to eat more healthy when he is away from home at work. He knows the right way to eat, but sugar and an overabundance of meat is his downfall. It is horrible when we see a movie because he wants to buy two boxes of expensive candy! I tried replacing the candy with dark chocolate, apples, and raw almonds. He really enjoyed it and did not miss the sick feeling he had after eating the junk. It is the beginning of our journey since we are avid movie watchers both at home and as a date night outing. Thank you for all your research. I appreciate everything you write! In response to the previous comment, it ends with us! If we do not buy it, it will not produced.

July 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Family

I try to stick to homemade treats instead of store-bought. That way I can at least control the type of sugars we are eating. I still have some downfalls, but I'm trying. I've never really thought that diet drinks were better than regular, but I've never been all that into drinking soda, either. I definitely avoid diet drinks as I believe the chemicals they list as food ingredients cannot be good for us in any way. I hope that my children are learning that from me as well! Growing up we only had soda on Sundays when my mother would mix grape juice or cranberry juice with one 2-liter bottle of lemon-lime soda or ginger ale (for our family of 13). It was a fun treat once in a while in small portions. That's the way it should be!

July 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Hi Skip:
You are wise indeed! I started and finished this program here in Ontario, Canada called the 8 Week Challenge. The premise, of course, is to cut out all sugars & processed foods and eat whole grains, fruits, veggies and mainly white meat with red meat once per week. I also switched my dairy intake to goat's milk and other types of milk (almond, coconut). I did the program and had great success. I dropped nearly 13 lbs. in 8 weeks and a whole lot of inches!! I was also very aware of exercising and made sure to incorporate this into my daily life.
The reason I tried this program is because it made so much sense. This is the way we should be eating on a day to day basis. Now, obviously to live the rest of one's life without a sugary treat every now and then is truly unrealistic. So, to combat this, the lovely and wonderful ladies who run the challenge offer the 80/20 rule/advice. Once you have reached your goal, you should maintain this lifestyle and 80% of your week should be spent eating healthy foods and 20% a cheat time/day if you will. I am now entering my 11th week of this and it is no longer a program but a way of life. Thanks for bringing to attention the negative relationships we have with sugar. It has to change. manufacturers must stop adding sugar to breads and meats and pretty much everything else we consume. When people ask me, "Did you find it hard to cut out sugar?" My answer is this: In meats and bread and salsa (just to list a few) that sugar is unnecessarily added to absolutely not.....resisting a piece of cake was a little trickier but I did it!"
We are indeed fighting a war on sugar. We need to pressure manufacturers to stop this practice.

July 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLP

Dear Liz A
Some years ago I helped my son drive a moving van across the U.S. As we descended from Denver to the Great Plains we started to see corn. For three days we drove through field after field of corn. Until then I had never comprehended how much of our crop land is dedicated to corn.

The Ray family comment has it right—if we don't buy it, they won't grow it. So the challenge is to spread the word to vote with your shopping dollars. I am, however, a big fan of fresh corn-on-the-cob. Best to you.

Congratulations on your transformation. What we seek is not a temporary diet, rather a rediscovery of the ancient food tradition of eating food close to its natural state, and abandoning the hyper-processed packaged foods that fill our stores. If we don't buy unhealthy food, it will go the way of the dinosaurs.

July 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

As I was standing in the check out line at the market with my abundance of vegetables and grains on the conveyer belt and waiting for the couple in front of me to finish their purchase, the checker was uncertain as to whether some of my items belonged to the people in front of me. One look at the items I was purchasing and the woman said to the checker, "Those definitely are not mine. We do not healthy." She said it in a joking manner but as I looked at her cart loaded with cases of soda and processed packaged everything while she waited for another clerk to bring her a box of cigarettes, I felt sorry for her because one day when one of her loved ones is in the hospital due to chronic illness, she will care then.
This food reformation is not going to easy or fast. Too many people love their processed food and will not give it up easily citing that they don't want to sacrifice taste.
It never ceases to amaze the amount of ridicule I receive because I choose to live a healthy lifestyle.

July 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

Karen, I think people ridicule because they know they should eat healthier and it makes them feel guilty when they see others doing it. Or they just think we are crazy!

July 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

I like the idea of dark chocolate and nuts... a little goes a long way. Plus, I just read that dark chocolate can help you avoid sunburns. My friend had similar advice for giving treats to kids...she said she always gave her kids strong tasting treats like peppermint patties, dark chocolate or licorice and they weren't tempted to eat a bunch of it. I like the dark chocolate covered almond cherry clusters from Costco because I feel like they have some healthy ingredients to bulk them up so they're quite satisfying but still a healthier choice.

I've really noticed a decline in my taste for sugar since improving my overall diet. I really don't like most desserts anymore (most store-bought treats are not made well and way too sweet for me now) and I've noticed that I'm satisfied after a bite or two. It's wonderful and I hope it's a lasting change!

July 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey

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