Is Sugar the Most Toxic Substance in Our Diet?

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ASPEN, Colo. — Dr. Robert Lustig, the physician and YouTube sensation who once wrotethat sugar should be regulated like alcohol, is on a new crusade to kill the sweetener.

In a packed, standing-room-only discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival Friday, Lustig called sugar an addictive substance that has no place in consumers’ diets. He also hinted that he’s ready to step up his fight to push for legislation to cut sugar consumption.

“We have to do something about our diets,” he said. “We have to get control.”

Lustig recently completed his law degree at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, and says he plans to “coerce” Washington policy makers to take a tougher stance on sugar. He did not provide specifics about such a plan, but said his appearance at the influential ideas conference was the first step in his effort to raise awareness about the issue.

Lustig’s basic argument is simple: Calories are not created equal. He posits that the calories from a can of sugary soda are not the same as those that come from eating a bag of almonds. That’s because “sugar calories” affect the body differently, he says.

The brain is biologically programmed to become dependent on sugar, Lustig says, wanting more and more of it over time. That excess sugar can lead to diabetes, obesity, heart disease and a host of other illnesses.

Not all physicians agree with this thinking, of course; some say a calorie burned is a calorie burned. But few critics have a platform like Lustig’s. He is omnipresent in the media, making frequent appearances on radio programs and TV shows. His 90-minute anti-sugar lecture, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” has been viewed more than three million times on YouTube.

0407e50And he’s working on a cookbook, due out next year, that follows the publication of his bestseller, “Fat Chance,” released in late 2012.

On Friday, he aimed much of his scorn at food manufacturers, which he says have “hijacked our taste buds” and contributed to a tripling in American sugar consumption over the past 30 years.

“They knew when they added more sugar, we bought more of their products because of the addiction phenomenon,” he said. “What if you had an unscrupulous cereal manufacturer who laced your Cheerios with morphine? Would that be OK? This is the legal equivalent.”

The average adult ingests 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, according to the American Heart Association. The organization recommends that be cut to just six teaspoons for women and nine for men.

Solving the problem gets tricky, though. Consumers need to do their part to eat more healthy “real foods” and less pre-packaged items. But Lustig acknowledges that may not be possible for people with low budgets or limited access to more nutritious food.

Government efforts to limit substances have also had mixed results. A 2010 recommendationby the Food and Drug Administration to reduce the amount of salt in processed foods has largely been ignored by food manufacturers. The Center for Science in the Public Interestreported earlier this month that sodium levels in many foods remain higher today than in 2005.

Then there’s the issue of taste: Consumers crave sweets. Lustig’s own wife is an avid baker, yet she’s managed to cut sugar by a third in all of her recipes. Lustig says pastries are better that way — it’s easier to distinguish the oats, raisins and other ingredients.

In the past, Lustig has advocated for taxes and age limits to prevent people from buying sugary products. He said Friday he considered regulation “a last resort,” but “unfortunately, we’re at that last resort.”

“Medicare will be broke by 2026 if we do nothing,” he said. “You know what? I want my freaking Medicare.”

Nutrition experts are quick to point out that Lustig’s singular focus on sugar can be problematic. Yes, sugar is worrisome in large quantities, but so is excess sodium, meat or dietary fats, said Dr. David Katz, the founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. He cautions against thinking that sugar is the only problem that needs to be addressed.

“The reality of course is that sugar is not ‘the’ thing wrong with our diet, it is just ‘a’ thing wrong with our diet,” Dr. Katz says.

Still, in Aspen, the audience embraced much of Lustig’s message. During a rapid-fire question-and-answer session, so many hands went up that the interviewer, The Atlantic’s Corby Kummer, had to take questions in batches.

Among them: How do you detox from sugar? (Exercise to work it out.) Are artificial sweeteners like Equal safe? (It’s unclear.) Is juicing a good idea? (It’s fine for vegetables, but not recommended for fruits, because juicing removes fiber, making it easier for the body to absorb fructose, the main sugar in fruit.)

Lustig’s final piece of advice? When shopping for pre-packaged foods, never buy anything labeled “light” or fat free.

“That is truly poison,” he said.

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