Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat and Good Calories, Bad Calories, as well a new Mother Jones article about the sugar industry, “Sweet Little Lies,” did a IAmA session on Reddit yesterday. Post-Halloween sugar rush, his session reminds us all of the damaging effects of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup on our bodies.
Taubes has written extensively about weight loss, as well as the effects of sugar and HFCS. He posits that these two culprits, in particular, wreak havoc on metabolic rates and are generally bad for our health overall. As we know, sugar consumption directly contributes to the prevalence of obesity and diabetes.
Taube answered lots of questions about the sugar industry, diet and nutrition. His whole session is worth a read, but we’ve chosen a few of the most interesting quotes to excerpt here.
Taubes thinks that most alternative sweeteners are better than actual sugar:
Short answer is I think they’re all better than sugar/HFCS and there’s not nearly enough data—randomized controlled trials—to show whether they are deleterious on their own. The evidence is just poor and the observational studies linking diet sodas to obesity/diabetes are meaningless, because they’re, well, just observations and don’t say anything about cause and effect. I did a short New York Times Magazine piece on artificial sweeteners about a year ago and concluded that the stevia compounds are probably the best, in that they’re natural and have a long history of use. Here’s the link. That said, last time I had a Diet Coke I got a headache the likes of which I can’t remember having and so haven’t touched the stuff since and that was about four years ago.
When asked if he thinks sugar addiction is real, Taubes said:
As a parent, I have little doubt that sugar is addicting and plays havoc with the brains of children. Or at least my children. As an ex-smoker and someone who has a sweet tooth, I also think it’s quite obviously addictive.
Still, Taubes doesn’t recommend banning sugar outright:
As for banning sugar, I can’t see that ever happening and I’m not sure it would be a good idea in any case (see, alcohol and prohibition and the war on drugs for possible unintended consequences). What I can see is the country getting to a place, as it has with cigarettes, where the huge majority of the population understands the dangers of partaking and so restricts consumption significantly and the food industry gets on board by taking sugar out of products, or reducing greatly the amount, and then advertising it as such. And, yes, I’m a big fan of education as a potential answer.
Taubes said his family was giving out candy this Halloween (Reese’s, specifically. A man after my own heart!) but of his own children, he commented:
We’ll probably let them eat three or four pieces of candy and then throw most of the rest out after they go to sleep.
I ate a few pieces of candy last night and I can report that I have a pretty pounding headache today. Is the headache related to the sugar consumption? It might be, it might not be. Taube says the scientific connection between sugar and health problems is clear, but also needs to be researched more thoroughly:
First, there’s no reason to think that the relationship between sugar(s) consumption and health endpoints is one to one or linear. So maybe a little bit of added sugar pushes us over a threshold, or maybe there’s some exponential thing going on due to, say, epigenetic effects. Then you have to keep in mind that these definitions of obesity and type 2 diabetes are threshold effects—people go from having a BMI of 29.9, for instance, to a BMI of 30 and they’ve gone from overweight to obese and yet they’ve only gained a few pounds. This is another problem with trying to establish causes from observational data. All we can say is that consumption of sugars went up and obesity and diabetes rates went up and maybe these two trends are related.
As I said, Taubes’ whole session is worth a read if you’re interested in nutrition, healthy eating or the food industry as a whole. As someone with a very powerful lifelong sweet tooth, Taubes’ information about the detrimental effects of sugar itself (and the craziness of the sugar industry) is eye-opening, to say the least.