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Sugar as Toxic as Meth

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After paying attention to this topic for years, and most recently listening to this interview with Dr. Robert Lustig, I thought I’d consolidate some resources and some information here for everyone.  By the way, if you don’t read any of this post, please carve out an hour to listen to Dr. Lustig’s interview.  If you have :30 minutes, listen to his presentation at UCSF in 2009.

What you’ll hear is an informative, insightful, and frightening perspective on the most insidious “nutrient” in our food today: SUGAR.  Keep in mind, Dr. Lustig is a pediatrician so he’s focused on kids as he’s treating them everyday for biochemical and metabolic disease, largely caused by…SUGAR.  Of course, this information applies to all of us, no matter the age.

After Dr. Lustig’s presentation at UCSF in May 2009, Gary Taubes wrote a NYT article in April 2011 about Dr. Robert Lustig’s research.  The article, is titled Is Sugar Toxic?    It turns out that Dr. Lustig was giving a talk on pediatric hormone disorders, pediatric metabolic disease, and childhood obesity.  He didn’t know there was a camera in the room.  However, since 2009, his presentation here has received over 7 million views.  If you’d prefer the short-form, see it here.  As an aside, Gary Taubes is also the author of the book Good Calories, Bad Calories, and many others clearing up the science behind diet, calories, and foods.

What’s the story?  Dr. Lustig’s case carries two broad messages for me:

  1. The clear and present danger of excess sugar in the normal American diet.  (However, from an evolutionary perspective our diets not normal at all and that’s why sugar is so dangerous.)
  2. The encouraging fact that our biochemistry comes first, before our behavior. We cannot outrun evolution and our biology.  Why is this good news?  Because as we control our environment (inputs), we can adjust our biochemistry, and thus our behavior.  This returns both autonomy and control to us as it relates to our health and fitness.

If you take the time to listen to the interview, or read the articles, or listen to Dr. Lustig’s presentation (or all three!) you’ll learn about the following:

  • The difference between diabetes and metabolically healthy obesity (MHO).
  • Telomere length and aging (and how sugar contributes).
  • Why a calorie is NOT a calorie
  • The eight (8) things that create metabolic disease.  Three (3) things too little and five (5) things too much:
    • Too little: fiber (also linked to gut biome and brain health), Omega-3 fatty acids, and micro nutrients.
    • Too much: trans fats, branch chain amino acids, Omega-6 fatty acids, alcohol, and SUGAR.
  • Difference between subcutaneous (ok) and visceral fat (bad), what creates the two, and why it matters.
  • Why sugar calories are not “empty calories” but rather “toxic calories.”
  • How our eating signals to our bodies that it’s summer outside every-single-day.  To read about another related effect and corollary, please read Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival.
  • Insulin (the energy storage hormone) and how it works, both well and badly.  Why if it’s too high it’s dangerous.  What drives insulin up: refined carbs and sugar.
  • How sugar “browns” your cells and your organs.
  • Basic metabolic rate (BMR), and why eating too much sugar signals to your body that the number of calories you’re eating is NOT actually the amount of energy you ingested, thus signally (you’re still hungry) to you that you need more food.
  • An insightful look at dopamine vs. serotonin.

Which leads me to Richard Friedman’s NYT article from this weekend, What Cookies and Meth have in Common.  One of the questions he asks is “What makes someone eat more and more in the face of poor health?”  He’s a psychiatrist who says in the opening paragraph, “I have yet to meet a patient who enjoys being addicted to drugs or compulsively overeating.”  What caught my eye is that his perspective is nearly identical to Dr. Lustig’s case:  That addiction is neither a moral failure nor a hard-wired behavior.  As it relates to food, we know from Dr. Lustig that biochemistry leads behavior.  And now from Richard Friedman (and the research he references), we know that we can change the path to addiction by changing our environment.

So what?  The “so what” is that in terms of health and fitness, but mostly health in this case, we have both autonomy and control of our behavior through our biochemistry. And our biochemistry is driven by the food (or fuel) choices we make.  Better food choices, better biochemistry, better behavior.  When it comes to food, we don’t eat badly because we can’t help it.  We can’t help it because we’re eating badly.

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  1. Ted Haase
    July 4, 2017 at 6:14 pm — Reply

    Great post and as I have struggled with my eating & imbibing discipline lately I see how I keep feeding the wolf. Time to “reset” once again. Happy 4th

  2. Brad Ruoff
    July 4, 2017 at 8:25 pm — Reply

    Really insightful Coleman, appreciate the work you put into these. NICOE called sugar “white death” so this is a timely reminder to decrease consumption and get your head right when making choices. Thanks. Brad.

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