Friday, January 29, 2010

Sugar: the Bitter Truth

“Fructose is alcohol without the buzz.”

Let's begin by comparing two charts from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which depict obesity levels on a state by state basis: the first in 1985 and the second, a generation later in 2008.

Clearly, obesity has exploded into a pandemic in just a single generation.

Interestingly, all the usual explanations--the rise of fast foods, women joining the workforce and thus the decline of the home-cooked meal and the decline of physical labor jobs--fail to explain the dramatic increase for the reason that all these conditions were already present in 1985.

Women had already joined the workforce en masse, fast-food outlets were already on every corner and jobs requiring hard physical labor had already dwindled to a small percentage of our post-industrial, service-dominated economy.

So what is different between 1985 and the present? At least one factor is the increased consumption of sugary beverages: soda, specialty coffees, iced teas, and "juices," both the fake variety (colored sugar water with 10% actual fruit juice) and 100% juice.

As a consequence, consumption of fructose (both "natural" and high-fructose corn sweetener, HFCS) has skyrocketed.

Reader R.W. recently submitted this account of his own family's experience, and what they discovered by consulting with one of the nation's leading experts in Pediatric Endocrinology.

I’ve attached a YouTube film of a lecture by Dr. Robert Lustig, head of Pediatric Endocrinology at UCSF Medical School. This is an explanation of the biological--and political--mechanism that causes obesity and Type 2 diabetes, and why they’ve become an epidemic.

We were fortunate to find Dr. Lustig when my younger son, Pat was an adolescent. Pat was a very heavy boy who gained weight despite being vigorously active (for example, he played water polo year round) and really not eating that much. I finally persuaded Pat’s pediatrician that there was something wrong with the boy’s metabolism. Pat’s blood test showed he had cholesterol and triglyceride counts that would be extreme for an obese 60-year-old--into the high 300’s.

There were no pediatric endocrinologists in our area at that time, so we were sent to UCSF. Dr. Lustig enrolled Pat in a study which I think is still ongoing. The upshot: cut out all fructose, and obesity and all its symptoms subside.

Pat, now 20, weighs 25 pounds LESS than he did in the 8th grade, although he is six inches taller. People literally do not recognize him. It is a very gratifying and amazing transformation. It was simple, but not easy. Pat worked very hard, and for a while was assisted with metformin. (He is now off the drug, and shows no ill effects or relapsed weight gain or high cholesterol or triglycerides.) But mostly it was about shunning all fructose, especially in drinks.

Fructose is addictive for the same reasons, by the same mechanisms, and producing many of the same pathologies as alcohol, as Dr. Lustig explains in the lecture. One of his catch phrases is: “Fructose is alcohol without the buzz.”

It’s 90 minutes. Stick with it. It’s a little dense in spots, but overall, it is a compelling story. Dr. Lustig puts it all in context. I know he and Michael Pollan are aware of each other, though when I asked him he said they haven’t had any formal collaboration. But their views of our food delivery system are totally aligned.

I’m hoping that once you see this, you will feel that it deserves a wider audience.

Sugar: the Bitter Truth (University of California TV)

Thank you, R.W., for sharing your experience with us. It is sobering indeed, but hopeful, as the path to better health is within reach of everyone: restrict consumption of fructose, including "juices," and drink plain water and eat actual fruit instead.

Housekeeping notes:

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