Is Sugar Addictive or Poisonous?

Reading the latest headlines on a new study published in Obesity, it’s hard to know whether we are supposed to think that sugar is addictive or poisonous. Robert Lustig says his new study provides “hard and fast data that sugar is toxic irrespective of its calories and irrespective of weight.” Perhaps we are supposed to conclude that it is both toxic and addictive. At least that is what you will find in Lustig’s ubiquitous comments on the subject.

Lustig and colleagues studied 43 children for nine days of following a diet with calories from sugar reduced and replaced by calories from starch. They relied upon self reports from the children to determine their baseline diet. They saw weight loss, reduced blood pressure, better cholesterol levels, and better control of blood sugar. They concluded that the outcomes were attributable to restricting sugar consumption and not to weight loss.

Nevermind that the study was neither randomized nor had a control group. Nevermind that the baseline diet was self reported and the intervention diet was controlled. Nevermind that self reports of what someone has eaten are generally healthier foods and smaller quantities than what they actually ate. Junk food, in particular, gets left out of self reports. If the researchers had followed their procedure of giving these 43 kids a measured diet of exactly the calories they had reported eating — but without swapping out the calories from sugar — they would likely have been cutting the number of calories they were eating and improving the quality of their diets.

So we don’t really know whether it was the controlled diet or the reduced sugar that contributed most to the results. There’s no comparison group.

UNC’s Barry Popkin, no fan of sugary foods, urges caution:

While this work is suggestive of a dramatic beneficial health effect, there are too many careful, well-controlled studies on this topic that do not find such unique, dramatic results.

That the results  are so different means that scientists across the globe must see if they can replicate these findings. To date, no one has found such dramatic results nor results that come close to replicating these, so I urge great caution in interpretation of these results.

No doubt, too much sugar is bad idea. We don’t need semi-scientific persuasion to figure that one out. Mothers for ages have been telling their kids not to eat too much sugar.

But another dietary dogma — low-fat everything — is at least partly responsible for more sugar finding its way into the food supply. Food manufacturers added the sugar to make up for lost palatability when they were obediently sucking the fat out of their products.

Let’s be careful not to go from one extreme to another based on a popular dogma.

Click here to read more from Food Navigator and here to read the study.

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October 29, 2015