Is sugar a toxin?

Robert Lustig lecture Sugar: The Bitter Truth uses sugar and toxin in the same sentence 13 times. He is not the only one. Like kids fighting over a box of cookies, the NYtimes, CBSnews, FoxNews and the Associated Press report on the growing evidence linking sugar consumption and obesity. It isn’t just about calories anymore. There is evidence suggesting sugar fundamentally changes the metabolic functioning of your body, making it the perfect playground for chronic illness.

My favorite articles on this subject include Is Sugar Toxic? by Gary Taubes and the posts by Marion Nestle at Food Politics. Taubes writes an easy-to-understand analysis of the consequences of sugar consumption and how we missed it. Nestle reports up-to-date political news with a refreshing honesty. When in a time crunch, Nestle is a quick snack compared to the Taubes meal, but they compliment each other well.

To summarize, imagine your cells are the mouse in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

  • You eat a cookie.
    Dopamine triggers in the brain – dopamine makes your brain happy.
    Insulin releases from the pancreas – insulin makes your cells happy because it lets them use the energy from sugar. If the cells do not need the energy, they store it in fat.
  • You eat a cookie a day for a month.
    Brain and pancreas continue same production per cookie, but the cells are less satisfied. The cells adapt to this new standard. The cells want more to do the same job as before. With the regulations calling for trans fat transparency in the 1990s, more High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) and sugar was added into products to keep them appealing to consumers, i.e. the new standard. Sugar sweetened beverages provide the largest source of sugar for most people. Many Americans drink a soda a day.
  • You eat two (three, four, five…) cookies.
    Twice as much insulin produced, effect similar or greater than first cookie. Rewind and repeat. Gradual increase in cookie consumption.

In conclusion…

  • Continuous propagation of this cycle and continuous increase in cookie dosage causes the pancreas to stop producing insulin and shut down from exhaustion (diabetes) and/or the cells to uncontrollably multiply from the effect of the insulin soup (cancer) and/or the cells to develop excess fat deposits in the body and liver (obesity/heart disease). The cells win. But you lose.

A system like this worked in the past because the limiting factor was sugar. Concentrated doses of sugar in nature are rare. The refinement of sugar and availability of commodity goods changed the game (fructose triggers more dopamine per dose, causing it to have an amplified effect on the body. Hello, HFCS!).

Check out this diagram on the other health effects of drinking refined sugars.

In many ways, we have made sugar a toxin. Our bodies have not changed as much as our environment. The process of disease within the body is not nearly as important as the act of over consumption fueled by increased availability. Greater transparency of sugar in our food supply and regulation of sugar sweetened beverages is a start. Health programs and organizations are doing their part, but are you? Look for my upcoming post on ways to decrease sugar intake.

Together we can make sugar sweet again.