Why I’m Optimistic That We Can Break Our Relationship With Sugar

Photo by Umberto Salvagnin/Flickr, Creative Commons

“Obesity in America is about calories in and calories out.” How many times have we all heard that? Food and beverage producers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture love this phrase because it’s short, simple and puts all the blame on the consumer. “People wouldn’t be so fat if they would just stop eating so much food and exercised more!” We have been suckered into believing this because it seems logical. But how does a nation that has become increasingly calorie-conscious keep getting fatter? It’s a simple answer — we made a big mistake. Obesity in America is not just about calories in and calories out. Obesity in America is about sugar, and it’s about time we do something about that.

Source: Centers for Disease Control/National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey

There are many explanations for obesity, but they are all based on one core truth: Americans are eating a lot of unhealthy food. The U.S. response to obesity has focused on reducing consumption, and thus has produced a culture of dieting. But this has not reversed the obesity trend. To truly address obesity we must make our food more healthful, and that starts by moving away from sugar.

The average American today consumes over 150 pounds of sugar per year — that’s 75 Domino sugar cubes every day!

In 1977 the dietary guidelines for Americans were revised to emphasize decreased fat consumption to prevent obesity. But this year also marked the beginning of the obesity epidemic in the U.S., with obesity increasing every year since. The effort to reduce fat consumption was based on a simple physiological calculation — if we eat less fat, we will be less fat. More scientifically, we knew high blood triglyceride levels lead to heart disease and fat storage, so since fats are made of triglycerides, reducing fat consumption should reduce triglycerides levels. Food manufacturers complied with these guidelines and a wave of “healthy low-fat” foods flooded grocery stores. As obesity rates continued to rise through four decades, the emphasis on choosing low-fat and low-calorie foods was continually reinforced and is still strong today. Yet obesity is higher than ever even though grocery stores are filled with low-fat options. What are we doing wrong?

Photo by Anthony Albright/Flickr, Creative Commons.

When food companies began reducing the fat content of their products, they began adding sugar to compensate for lost flavor in their low-fat products. In the United States, sugar comes in many forms — sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrups, agave — all of which are cheap. Reducing fat content was no hardship for food companies because they could substitute sugar into their products, producing a taste that consumers love. As a result, sugar was poured into all kinds of processed foods, even unexpected ones like bread and tomato sauce. As America reduced its fat consumption, sugar consumption skyrocketed right along with obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The average American today consumes over 150 pounds of sugar per year — that’s 75 Domino sugar cubes every day! If you got all of your sugar from Domino sugar cubes, you’d have to buy a new box every 2.5 days to eat 150 pounds in a year.

Our mistake in reducing fats was an oversimplification of human physiology. Reducing fat intake can reduce triglyceride levels to some extent, but sugar consumption also raises triglycerides. As we phased out high-fat foods, we added so much sugar to the new “healthy” foods that we ended up causing a physiological response that was worse than the fatty foods. The cause of this effect, as we found out later, was fructose.

Fructose is a natural, single-unit sugar that is exceptionally sweet. The other common natural, single-unit sugar is glucose, which is not very sweet. Neither fructose nor glucose commonly exist as single units in our foods. Rather, one fructose and one glucose combine to form sucrose (which you know as table sugar). High-fructose corn syrup also consists of fructose and glucose, but the ratio of fructose to glucose is skewed so that more fructose is present. Starch, which we commonly associate with potatoes, is simply a long chain of glucose molecules put together. While these two sugars are commonly coupled with each other, their effects on the body couldn’t be more different.

Fructose stimulates fat production five times as much as glucose in the liver.

Glucose is the molecule of life. Every cell in the human body uses glucose as its source of energy. If you were to eat a 200-calorie meal of glucose, any of the cells in your body could, and would, directly use 160 of those calories. The remaining 40 calories would be processed by the liver, which would store the energy and make a little fat. While fructose is very similar to glucose in structure, it is not an energy source that our cells can directly use. If you ate a 200-calorie fructose meal, nearly all of the 200 calories would go to the liver for processing. When the liver processes all 200 calories, it will make more fat than when the 40 glucose calories are processed. Fructose stimulates fat production five times as much as glucose in the liver. The take away message is that these 200 calories are not equal. We’d be much better off eating 200 glucose calories than we would 200 fructose calories.

This leads us to an important question about fruit. Fruit contains both glucose and fructose, so is fruit bad? Fruit differs from sugary processed foods in two ways: fruit generally contains more dietary fiber and overall lower amounts of sugar than processed foods. When you eat an apple, not only do you consume less sugar than what would be in a candy bar, but you also consume dietary fiber, which counteracts some of the negative effects of fructose. Dietary fiber is also a key part of an overall healthy diet, and fruit is a great source of it!

Photo courtesy of FoodiesFeed.

It’s time that we reject the notion that a calorie is a calorie. Calories are not created equal, and it’s time we recognize sugar as a source of bad calories. Whether it’s sucrose, cane sugar, agave, corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup, the fructose within these products is poisoning us. The good news is that fructose is not something that needs to be in our diets. We could get rid of all fructose and our bodies would only be healthier because of it. The even better news is that we don’t need to live our lives around dieting. Instead, we need to stop consuming over 12 pounds of sugar each month by reducing the amount of soda we drink and the sweets we eat. We also need to be diligent food detectives in the grocery store, keeping a watchful eye for sugar lurking in unsuspecting products. Most importantly, we must stand up to food producers by avoiding high sugar products and voicing our desires for low-sugar options.

It is easy to look at the obesity trends and see only doom and gloom. It’s also easy to look at yourself in the mirror, and feel hopeless about managing your weight. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The future is incredibly promising if we can move away from sugar. Without sugar, our meals will be much healthier and will leave us feeling fuller than a sugar-laden meal ever could.

Peter Eisenhauer is a senior biochemistry major and fellow at Ursinus College’s Center for Science and the Common Good.