Sunday, August 25, 2013

Cutting Down on the Sugar

A friend of mine sent me a link to a YouTube video he wanted me to look at. The video was by a Dr. Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California and the video appears to be getting a lot of buzz.

The video was an hour and a half long and I really didn't have the time to watch the whole thing so instead I put my critical thinking cap on and did an internet search for Dr. Lustig. I found some news articles, interviews and a youtube video excerpt from 60 Minutes covering his theory. In a nutshell -- people eat way too much sugar so need to cut down sugar intake, especially fructose (which is in a lot of processed foods). Sugar is largely responsible for the current obesity epidemic and as far as he is concerned is essentially toxic in the amounts that we are eating. He also says that the food industry has been steadily increasing the content of sugar in foods to make them tastier and to compensate for removing fat from foods due to the move towards “low-fat” eating. There is also some related items regarding calories and how a sugar calorie differs from other calories but I think that's a secondary concern to the overall call to lessen sugar intake.

Now “sugar is evil” and “processed food is bad” is nothing new and is banded about sometimes by alternative medicine circles who love to go on about the dangers of refined sugar or processed sugar, instead promoting natural alternatives. Given I am not a doctor or nutritionist instead it's better to take a critical look at the quality of the messenger and the message.


Dr. Lustig is:
• a qualified physician with a lot of experience specializing in a relevant field of medicine related to what he is discussing
• not trying to sell you special treatments, expensive medicines or trips to his clinic
• trying to use evidence-based methods to support his hypothesis (not a ton of studies out there right now but there is some experimental evidence supporting it)
• not recommending extreme measures that can be common in alt-med circles: like discontinuing current treatments or avoiding/distrusting the medical establishment
• not heavily pushing for people to buy his book. Alt-med people might give you a teaser and you need to buy their book to get all the relevant information. Dr. Lustig appears to be giving you the overall information you need and if you want more granular detail or food recommendations you can buy the book. Appears more interested in getting the message out than book sales.
• not recommending banning sugar, just cutting back on it a lot.
• not mentioned by the internet site Quackwatch.


One newspaper interview with Dr. Lustig contained a few statements entering into the conspiracy theory area -- that the food industry was hand-in-hand with the U.S. Government and they silenced Michelle Obama or something like that. (If you’re reading this Dr. Lustig my advice is to stay away from this kind of thing, keep the debate focused on the evidence and the medical findings. Conspiracy accusations just allow opponents the ammo to dismiss you as a “conspiracy-kook” instead of looking at the evidence.)

So overall a lot of positives and almost none of the red flags that would generally indicate quackery. Hopefully the lengthy youtube video is similar but the other items I reviewed support the above.

Conclusion: an informed hypothesis that is certainly worth study and debate.

So given that the main thing to do is simply cut back on sugar I figured I would give that a try as part of my attempt to slowly lose weight. I'll admit I've been more focused on calories and fat but don’t see any reason not to be more “sugar mindful”, this is not exactly radical, fad-diet stuff here. I figured I’m on the right track already – I never add sugar or sweeteners to coffee or cereal, in fact I don’t touch a sugar bowl. My cereals are typically high-fiber whole-grain cereals (but I do add a bit of those sugar/honey cereals for flavor, that’s going to stop). I've already been cutting back on desserts as part of trying to slowly lose weight, only drink diet sodas, get juice from a juice stall where it’s blended fruit, and I rarely drink alcohol.

So I’ll cut out the bit of sugar cereal and go off the soda, even diet ones (maybe a psychological thing, I think drinking a sweet drink might make you just want to have sweet drinks more). That should about do it.

Until I read the labels on my food.

What do you know, a high-fiber cereal has added sugar. Why would you add sugar to a high-fiber whole-grain cereal? One of them discloses that for every hundred grams of cereal I’m eating 20 g of sugar (for comparison a banana has 12g and apples around 10g). 20% sugar! Huh? And my healthy Dorset high-fiber muesli? 27.5g! (though it’s likely from the dried fruits in it, there does not appear to be any added sugar).

Um, so I guess I’ll cut the cereal down by half and replace the half with an apple or banana. I think Dr. Lustig won’t have an issue with bananas or apples.

I like breads but apparently many of them have a lot of sugar, and I have no way to know how much since the breads have no nutritional labeling. Guess I’ll reduce the bread intake too.

My favorite “healthy lunch” is a vegetarian pasta dish from Vanellis that has a red sauce – their website indicates the sauce likely has around 6-8g of sugar based on the amount of sauce I get. Okay, that’s not bad, but maybe I’ll try to cut down the sauce even more.

I like low-fat yoghurts but they appear to have added sugars – I’ll see if I can find one that doesn’t.

Suddenly this is looking harder than I thought. But I’ll stick with trying to lower the sugar intake and see what happens.

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