Author and educator Gary Taubes is among a small group of health investigators who have been relentlessly spreading the word about the strong associations between sugar consumption and the rising rates of obesity and major diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.
Taubes’ latest book is called “The Case Against Sugar,” which covers topics such as whether sugar should be considered a food or a drug, its addictive nature, and the health ramifications of eating a high-sugar processed food diet. All of these topics are also covered in this featured lecture.
How Much Sugar Do You Eat Each Day?
If you're like most people, you might not know the exact answer to that question, and the reason for that is because it's in virtually all processed foods, including products you would never suspect would have added sugar in it.
For example, fruit flavored yogurt can contain upwards of 20 grams of sugar, or 5 teaspoons, per serving, and a package of sweet and sour chicken with rice contains more than 12 teaspoons (more than a can of soda).
Sugar can also hide under less familiar names, such as dextrose, maltose, galactose and maltodextrin, just to name a few.1
High-sugar meals are a problem largely relegated to the processed food industry. You don't really have this problem when you're cooking from scratch with whole foods, which are packed with natural flavors. Then all you need is seasoning.
Rarely, if ever, would you consider adding several teaspoons of sugar to a home-cooked meal.
Most Americans Consume FAR Too Much Sugar
According to a 2014 study,2 10 percent of Americans consume 25 percent or more of their daily calories in the form of added sugars. Most adults (71.4 percent) get at least 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugar. The ramifications of this are significant.
People who consumed 21 percent or more of their daily calories in the form of sugar were TWICE as likely to die from heart disease compared to those who got 7 percent or less or their daily calories from added sugar.
The risk was nearly TRIPLED among those who consumed 25 percent or more of their daily calories from added sugar. That means at least 10 percent of the adult population in the U.S. are in this tripled-risk category.
Personally I have chosen to consume an ultra-low carb diet with no added sugars and about 35 grams of net carbs a day (total carbs minus fiber). I prefer not to damage my mitochondria with a dirty fuel like glucose.
The American Heart Association and the World Health Organization recommend limiting your daily added sugar intake to 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men, and 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women. The limits for children range from 3 to 6 teaspoons (12- 25 grams) per day, depending on age.
Four grams of sugar is equivalent to about 1 teaspoon, and I strongly recommend limiting your daily fructose intake to 25 grams or less from all sources, including natural sources such as fruit — regardless of your sex. That equates to just over 6 teaspoons of total sugar per day as sugar is half fructose.
If you’re among the 80 percent who have insulin or leptin resistance or who are overweight or taking statins, or who have metabolic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, you’d be wise to restrict your total fructose consumption to as little as 15 grams per day until you’ve normalized your insulin and leptin levels.
The average American consumes around 20 teaspoons of added sugar a day. This is more than three times the recommended amount, and the evidence clearly indicates that this dietary trend goes hand in hand with our current epidemics of obesity and chronic disease.
Sugar Feeds Disease
As noted in Taubes’ lecture, “sugar” includes both sucrose (table sugar) and fructose in the form of high fructose corn syrup or HFCS.
While some researchers have pointed out that fructose produces more metabolic harm than sucrose, Taubes believes this is a fruitless discussion, as both act as fuel for disease when consumed in excess.
As sugar consumption has risen — especially since the advent of processed foods and drinks — obesity and diabetes rates have skyrocketed worldwide. For the first time in history, obese people now outnumber those who are underweight,3,4,5,6 and half of adult Americans have either full blown diabetes or prediabetes.
In the U.S., diabetes rates have increased 900 percent since the early 1960s, and it’s now affecting people at an increasingly younger age, whereas type 2 diabetes used to be a rare disease that hit the middle-aged and elderly.
If you go further back in time, you see that diabetes rates began to spike around the mid-1920s, and compared to that time period, diabetes rates have now risen by an absolutely astounding 9,000 percent!
According to Taubes, one of the reasons it’s gotten this bad is because health professionals have been under the mistaken assumption that they understand the causes of obesity and diabetes.
Clearly they don’t. Or else they’d have made some significant changes to their recommendations once it became clear that prevalence kept going up despite their best efforts at educating people about how to eat “right.” The truth is conventional diet recommendations have provoked these epidemics.
A major fallacy is that eating fat makes you fat. This is entirely false, and low-fat recommendations have likely ruined a significant number of lives over the past few decades.
As I've said many times before, eating fat doesn’t make you fat, not being able to burn fat makes you fat. To correct this metabolic imbalance, you ideally need to restrict net carbs to under 50 grams per day, limit protein to 1 gram/kg of lean body mass, and consume only high quality fat sources.
The Metabolic Impact of Sugar
All foods have metabolic and hormonal effects, but they’re not identical. Carbs are processed differently and produce different results compared to proteins and fats, for example. Different types of carbohydrates are also processed differently.
When it comes to sugar, fructose is metabolized in your liver, while glucose is metabolized in every cell of your body. According to Dr. Robert Lustig, a neuroendocrinologist who has done extensive research on the role of sugar in your body, your liver can safely metabolize only about 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day. Any excess gets metabolized into body fat.
Conventional wisdom says that obesity is caused by consuming more calories than your body can burn, and to lose weight, you have to either cut calories, exercise more, or both. As noted by Taubes, the conventional view is that there are no bad foods, only bad behavior.
As it turns out, this simply isn’t true , and Taubes isn’t the only one to bring up the idea that sugar has a toxic influence. Dr. Lustig introduced the concept of fructose being "isocaloric but not isometabolic."
What this means is even if you get the identical amount of calories from fructose or glucose, fructose and protein, or fructose and fat, the metabolic effect will be entirely different. Different nutrients provoke different hormonal responses, and those hormonal responses determine, among other things, how much fat you accumulate.
Because it’s metabolized in your liver, which has a limited capacity to process it, fructose tends to pack on the most pounds the fastest. But excess sucrose also has detrimental effects, and promotes insulin resistance just like fructose does.
Pre-Diabetes Versus Diabetes
Pre-diabetes, also known as impaired glucose tolerance, is a term used to describe an earlier state of progressing insulin resistance. It is conventionally diagnosed by having a fasting blood sugar between 100 and 125 mg/dl. Pre-diabetes is very easy to turn around. Simply swapping processed foods for real foods lower in sugar and sugar-forming carbohydrates combined with consistent regular movement (not sitting) will quickly put you on the road to reversing this condition.
As your insulin resistance progresses, you end up with an increase in sugar and fats in your bloodstream which leads to high triglyceride levels and increased body fat--especially abdominal fat — and elevated blood pressure. Having three or more of a group of symptoms caused by insulin (and now we also know leptin) resistance is referred to as metabolic syndrome. This group of symptoms include high triglycerides, low HDL, higher blood glucose and blood pressure, and increased belly fat.
At that point, you’re well on your way toward developing type 2 diabetes. In type 2 diabetes your pancreas is producing some insulin, in fact usually too much, but is unable to recognize the insulin and use it properly. This is an advanced stage of insulin resistance. When you have inadequate insulin signaling, sugar cannot get into your cells and instead builds up in your blood. Hence the elevated blood sugar levels.
Conventional wisdom says metabolic syndrome is associated with eating too many calories and exercising too little. But compelling research shows sugar, and fructose in particular, is the true culprit.
As Taubes points out, what is meant when he (and others) say that sugar is “toxic” is that it is not an actual poison but contributes to metabolic syndrome, which in turn can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and a number of other chronic diseases. So taken in large doses over long periods of time it will clearly result in health damage.
The Sugar-Metabolic Syndrome-Cancer Connection
Another disease associated with obesity and metabolic syndrome is cancer.
Cancer cells need glucose to thrive, and carbohydrates turn into glucose in your body. In order to starve the cancer cells, you have to eliminate its primary food source, i.e. the sugars, which include all non-vegetable carbohydrates. Physiologist Dr. Otto Warburg received a Nobel Prize back in 1934 for his research identifying cancer’s primary fuel was from anaerobic fermentation of glucose. He clearly demonstrated that cancer cells require sugar to thrive. More recent research7 has also concluded that sugar appears to initiate cancer growth.
One of the key mechanisms by which sugar promotes cancer and other chronic disease is through mitochondrial dysfunction. When your body burns sugar for its primary fuel, far larger levels of reactive oxygen species are created, which generate secondary free radicals that cause mitochondrial and nuclear DNA damage, along with cell membrane and protein impairment. Cancer is but one potential outcome of this kind of DNA damage.
Late-night snacking, especially with carbohydrates, can increase these risks even further. There is quite compelling evidence showing that when you supply fuel to the mitochondria in your cells at a time when they don't require large amounts, like when you are sleeping, the system that generates ATP backs up, which in turn liberates reactive oxygen species (free radicals), setting into motion the same cascade of mitochondrial and DNA damage as just described.
There’s also evidence to indicate that cancer cells uniformly have damaged mitochondria, so eating shortly before going to bed is likely a very bad idea, considering your cells need the least amount of fuel when you’re sleeping. Personally I strive for six hours of fasting before bedtime.
Along With Obesity and Diabetes, Cancer Rates Have Soared
Like diabetes, cancer used to be a rare disease — especially among native populations. The primary difference between North American immigrants and indigenous peoples in the late 1800 and early 1900 was that the indigenous peoples had very little access to sugar, whereas among Westerners sugar was becoming more widely available. Taubes includes a number of interesting graphs and charts detailing these synchronous events.
Breast cancer cases started rising about a decade after diabetes started spiking. Prior to 1967, the number of Inuit women diagnosed with breast cancer was zero. Today, 1 in 8 American women will develop breast cancer, and people who move to the U.S. start experiencing the same rates of cancer as other Americans within a matter of two generations.
As pointed out by Taubes in the above video, epidemiological research suggests that as much as 80 percent of all cancers are preventable through diet and lifestyle, and diet accounts for as much as 70 percent of this effect. So what is it about our diet that drives these disease statistics? The weight of the evidence points to sugar.
Even in terms of treatment, cancer has been shown to respond to diet. A ketogenic diet, or more accurately called a high fat burning diet, which is high in healthy fat and very low in sugar, has been shown to help eliminate cancer in many cases, and a lot of very exciting research is being done in this area. Part of its success is due to the fact that it effectively addresses the underlying insulin resistance. Once your insulin resistance resolves, a ketogenic diet is typically not required to maintain good health.
Tips for Reducing Your Added Sugar Intake
One of the most important ways to dramatically cut down on your sugar and fructose consumption is to simply eat real food, as most of the added sugar you end up with comes from processed fare: not from adding a teaspoon of sugar to your tea or coffee. Other ways to cut down on the sugar in your diet includes:
- Rapidly working towards eliminating sugar you personally add to your food and drink or consume in the form of processed foods
- Using Stevia or Lo-Han instead of sugar and/or artificial sweeteners. You can learn more about the best and worst of sugar substitutes in my previous article, Sugar Substitutes — What’s Safe and What’s Not
- Using fresh fruit in lieu of canned fruit or sugar for meals or recipes calling for a bit of sweetness
- Using spices instead of sugar to add flavor to your meal
Reducing Sugar May Be the Best Form of Health Insurance
Research coming out of some of America’s most respected institutions now confirms that sugar is a primary dietary factor driving chronic disease development. So far, scientific studies have linked excessive fructose consumption to about dozens of different diseases and health problems,8 including heart disease and cancer.
As a general rule, a diet that promotes health is high in healthy fats and very, very low in sugar and net carbs (total carbs minus fiber), along with a moderate amount of high quality protein. In my view, the single most important driver of obesity and chronic disease is consuming over 50 grams of net carbs a day, along with excessive protein.
Once you get net carbs well below 50 grams, with a protein intake of about one-half gram of protein per pound of lean body mass, along with high quality fat, your body will start to wake up its fat burning metabolism and over time it will become virtually impossible to be overweight.
Including exercise is recommended, starting at the beginner’s level and going all the way up to advanced. Organic foods are generally preferable, as this also cuts down on your pesticide and GMO exposure. Many grocery stores now stock a fair amount of organic foods. The following organizations can also help you locate healthy farm-fresh fare.
EatWild.com provides lists of certified organic farmers known to produce safe, wholesome raw dairy products as well as grass-fed beef and other organic produce.
Here you can also find information about local farmers markets, as well as local stores and restaurants that sell grass-fed products.
Weston A Price has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.
The Grassfed Exchange has a listing of producers selling organic and grass-fed meats across the U.S.
This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
A national listing of farmers' markets.
CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.
The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products, and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO "organic" production from authentic organic practices