The rise of chronic metabolic disease in the U.S. follows the growth of the U.S. sugar industry and increases in per capita sugar consumption.
Today, we consume about 20 times more sugar than our ancestors did, and we have very little control over the amount since what was once a condiment has now become a dietary staple added to countless processed and fast foods.1
Yet, if you were to visit with a conventional nutritionist, you’d likely still hear rhetoric that’s been parroted since the 1950s — incorrect and misleading rhetoric at that — that “a calorie is a calorie” and obesity is the result of consuming more calories than you expend.
“When it comes to weight gain, the sugar industry and purveyors of sugary beverages still insist, a calorie is a calorie, regardless of its source, so guidelines that single out sugar as a dietary evil are not evidence-based.
Surprisingly, the scientific consensus is technically in agreement. It holds that obesity is caused ‘by a lack of energy balance … ‘”
Yet, as Taubes pointed out, researchers have known since the 1960s that your body metabolizes different types of carbohydrates, like glucose and fructose, in different ways, causing very different hormonal and physiological responses that absolutely may influence fat accumulation and metabolism.3
“In light of this research, arguing today that your body fat responds to everything you eat the exact same way is almost inconceivably naïve,” Taubes said, “But don’t blame the sugar industry for perpetuating this view. Blame the researchers and the nutrition authorities.”4
‘Energy Balance’ Theory Perpetuated by Nutritionists, Soda Industry
Many conventional nutritionists are among the top supporters of the energy balance theory, which still suggests that weight gain is simply a matter of consuming more calories than you burn off.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute is among those prominent government organizations still perpetuating this myth5 — alongside soda giants who obviously have a vested interest in keeping sugar’s “OK-in-moderation” reputation.
In 2015, for instance, Coca-Cola Co. was outed for secretly funding and supporting the Global Energy Balance Network, a nonprofit front group that promoted exercise as the solution to obesity while significantly downplaying the role of diet and sugary beverages in the weight loss equation.6
Public health authorities accused the group of using tobacco-industry tactics to raise doubts about the health hazards of soda, and a letter signed by more than three dozen scientists said the group was spreading “scientific nonsense.”7
By December 2015, the Global Energy Balance Network announced it would be shutting down, with Coca-Cola claiming it was working on increased transparency.
However, as reported by CrossFit bloggers Russell Berger and Russ Greene, the soda industry maintains many close ties with organizations that continue to promote the energy balance myth (and directly funds such organizations).8 Among them:
• The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), which was funded by Coca-Cola until 2015.
They also founded a program called “Energy Balance 4 Kids With Play” in partnership with the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), “an industry organization representing Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, General Mills and other distributers of sugar-sweetened products.”9
“The program promotes the concept of energy balance among children and parents through registered dietitians,” Berger noted.10
• The International Food Information Council Foundation, which is funded by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, promotes the idea that “when it comes to weight management or weight loss, it’s the total calories that matters most.”
• The National Institutes of Health “We Can!” Campaign. Coca-Cola has channeled millions of dollars to the NIH Foundation. The campaign advises drinking soda only “once in a while” and suggests balancing out days when kids eat lots of high-sugar foods/drinks with more physical activity.
• The American College of Sports Medicine, which is also funded by Coca-Cola, suggests that while water should be your first choice of beverage, “there is no harm in drinking juice or even soda in moderation.”
• The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which also receives funding from Coca-Cola via the CDC Foundation, also promotes “energy balance,” assuring that: “Healthy eating is all about balance.
You can enjoy your favorite foods even if they are high in calories, fat or added sugars. The key is eating them only once in a while … ”
How the Soda Industry Downplays the Health Risks of Excess Sugar
While leveraging the energy balance theory via public health organizations, the soda industry also uses a variety of other smoke-and-mirrors tactics to distract the public from the true health risks of consuming sugary beverages.
One of their favorites is blaming obesity on lack of exercise and suggesting that you can somehow out-exercise the effects of a poor diet, which you cannot. Berger noted:11
“Perhaps the biggest trick of Big Soda nutrition science is to promote physical activity instead of fitness and weight loss. Weight loss and fitness require limiting the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages.
Generic references to physical activity, however, may actually encourage the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, especially when the same organizations promote the idea of “earning” sugar by burning off additional calories through daily activity.”
There are other stealthy tricks too, like industry-funded health organizations suggesting metabolic syndrome is the result of obesity and can be remedied with physical activity.
But independent studies have suggested insulin resistance, caused by overconsumption of sugars, especially fructose, may, in fact, be a primary cause behind metabolic syndrome.
For instance, a meta-review published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that once you reach 18 percent of your daily calories from added sugar, there’s a two-fold increase in metabolic harm that promotes pre-diabetes and diabetes.12
Moreover, research suggests sugary beverages are to blame for about 183,000 deaths worldwide each year, including 133,000 diabetes deaths, 44,000 heart disease deaths, and 6,000 cancer deaths.
By focusing on obesity and physical activity, the soda industry very carefully avoids bringing attention to the role sugar and insulin resistance play in this increasingly common chronic condition.
Another common tactic, as Berger pointed out, is describing chronic disease and obesity as “complex” issues. While it’s true that disease can be complex, the soda industry uses this term as a form of false nutritional propaganda. Berger wrote:13
“Big Soda speaks of the complexity of addressing and identifying the causes of chronic disease. The label of complexity rules out simple treatments like ‘stop drinking sugar’ and makes models of chronic disease based on overconsumption of sugar seem oversimplified and rash.”
Food Industry Attacks Respected Exercise Scientist for Dissing Sugar
Dr. Timothy Noakes, is a professor of exercise science and sports medicine at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and a long-time low-carb advocate.
He is perhaps best known for the book, “Waterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports,” which suggests that overhydrating will actually worsen athletic performance, not improve it.
He also widely promotes a low-carb, high-fat diet, including for children. In 2014, he tweeted the recommendation that babies should be weaned onto low-carbohydrate diets — a far cry from the processed cereals most dieticians and pediatricians recommend.
The advice resulted in backlash from Claire Julsing Strydom, the president of South Africa’s dietetics association, ADSA, (and also a consultant for Kellogg’s) and others who reported him for “unprofessional conduct.”
ADSA itself also has additional ties to cereal giant Kellogg’s and reportedly gets more than one-third of its revenue from corporate sponsors such as Nestle, Unilver and Huletts Sugar.
South Africa’s Health Professions Council (HPCSA) is reviewing whether to strip Noakes of his medical license, but there’s much more to this story than meets the eye.
Greene uncovered an elaborate backstory that reveals the case against Noakes to be nothing more than a witch hunt aimed at protecting the interests of the junk food industry, which exerts major influence over South Africa’s dietary guidelines. I will also be interviewing Noakes in April, so watch for what I’m sure will be a revealing interview in the months to come. In short, Greene reported:14
“To summarize: [A] former ILSI [International Life Sciences Institute, a Coca-Cola proxy organization] South Africa president convinced the HPCSA to charge Noakes, another former ILSI South Africa president testified as an expert witness against him, and an ILSI-funded researcher consulted for the legal team prosecuting him. And yet, not a single news story has connected ILSI to the Noakes trial.
… The HPCSA will release its final decision on Noakes on April 21, 2017. Noakes is cautiously optimistic. It seems unlikely that HPCSA will rule that his 2014 tweet constituted a doctor-patient relationship. Strydom herself has admitted that Noakes’ tweet did not qualify as such a relationship.
The case against Noakes falls apart without that crucial element. Noakes even thinks it’s possible that his 900 slides and 30-[plus] hours of testimony will convince South Africa to discard its industry-corrupted dietary guidelines. Perhaps.”
‘The Case Against Sugar’ — Is Sugar Actually a Drug?
Taubes’ excellent book, “The Case Against Sugar,” expertly documents sugar’s link to chronic disease and much more, including whether sugar should more aptly be described as a drug instead of a food.
It doesn’t cause the immediate symptoms of intoxication, like dizziness, staggering, slurring of speech or euphoria, associated with other “drugs,” yet perhaps this only allowed its long-term medical consequences to go “unasked and unanswered.” “Most of us today will never know if we suffer even subtle withdrawal symptoms from sugar, because we’ll never go long enough without it to find out,” Taubes wrote, continuing:15
“Sugar historians consider the drug comparison to be fitting in part because sugar is one of a handful of ‘drug foods’ … that came out of the tropics, and on which European empires were built from the 16th century onward — the others being tea, coffee, chocolate, rum and tobacco.”
Interestingly, Taubes claims that sugar has likely killed more people than tobacco, and that tobacco wouldn’t have killed as many people as it did without sugar. This is a fascinating story in and of itself, which Taubes details in greater depth in his book.
” … [S]ugar was, and still is, a critical ingredient in the American blended-tobacco cigarette, the first of which was Camel. It’s this ‘marriage of tobacco and sugar,’ as a sugar-industry report described it in 1950, that makes for the ‘mild’ experience of smoking cigarettes as compared with cigars and, perhaps more important, makes it possible for most of us to inhale cigarette smoke and draw it deep into our lungs.”16
It’s also known that sugar induces similar responses in the “reward centers” of the human brain as other additive substances, like nicotine, cocaine, heroin and alcohol. The 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program even recommends consuming sweets in lieu of alcohol to ward off a craving for a drink.
Today, “Sugar has become an ingredient in prepared and packaged foods so ubiquitous it can only be avoided by concerted and determined effort,” Taubes wrote, which is, of course, precisely the problem, especially as realization grows that simply “moderating” sugar may not be enough. Taubes continued:17
“The traditional response to the how-little-is-too-much question is that we should eat sugar in moderation — not eat too much of it. But we only know we’re consuming too much when we’re getting fatter or manifesting other symptoms of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome … Any discussion of how little sugar is too much also has to account for the possibility that sugar is a drug and perhaps addictive.
Trying to consume sugar in moderation, however it’s defined, in a world in which substantial sugar consumption is the norm and virtually unavoidable, is likely to be no more successful for some of us than trying to smoke cigarettes in moderation — just a few a day, rather than a whole pack … If sugar consumption is a slippery slope, then advocating moderation is not a meaningful concept.”
Breaking Free From Sugar’s Hold
Once you understand the close ties between the soda and junk-food industries and public health organizations’ dietary recommendations, it becomes clear that relying solely on them for nutritional advice puts your health at risk. And once you understand the health risks of sugar, including the fact that it’s not an issue of extra calories but the kind of calories, it may motivate you to want to cut back, or eliminate, this substance from your diet and that of your children.
The bright side is that once you cut down on added sugars and other net carbs (total carbs minus fiber), which will allow your body to start burning fat as its primary fuel again, the sugar cravings will disappear and avoiding it won’t feel like such a struggle. In the meantime, if a sugar craving strikes, fit in a quick workout, drink a cup of organic black coffee, or eat something sour (like fermented vegetables or lemon water). All can help you kick your sugar cravings to the curb.
“To the sugar industry, the nutritionists’ dogmatic belief that obesity is a calorie overconsumption problem and a calorie is a calorie has been the gift that keeps on giving. So long as nutrition and obesity authorities insist that this is true, then the sugar industry can rightfully defend its product on the basis that the calories from sugar are no better nor worse than those from steak or grapefruit or ice cream — perhaps even kale or quinoa. We can’t have it both ways,” Taubes concluded.18