In order to drive clicks I was tempted to entitle this article “Fuck Sugar Before It Fucking Kills You.” Nevertheless, I cannot let my desire for traffic overrule an ethical need for clarity.
I believe there is an editor at TIME Magazine who lets their palate bias rule.
Someone at that magazine read a book saying bacon fried in butter is a super food, and now we’re seeing cover stories proclaiming “Eat Butter” for it’s alleged health benefits. And it seems you can’t glorify butter without also demonizing sugar, which explains the recent provocative title at TIME: “Sugar Is Definitely Toxic, a New Study Says.” The tl;dr on the study in question is that they took a group of 43 boys and swapped some sugar for starch while trying to keep overall caloric intake at weight maintenance levels. Doing so improved some metabolic parameters, and according to the lead author of the piece, “sugar is metabolically harmful because it’s sugar.”
People smarter than I have exposed the study for it’s flaws, so I’ll recap:
- It used dietary recall for the young boys. Earlier this year a research team published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings that memory based dietary assessment was “fundamentally and fatally flawed.”
- The study lasted only nine days.
- The study supposes that there is something inherently wrong with sugar intake as a direct “toxic” causation, where any legitimate differences in metabolic or other health parameters could be attributed to the beneficial elements of the food that was used to replace the sugar.
It’s an interesting coincidence that I had an article published the same day this study came out quoting several experts asserting sugar is not inherently toxic. The negative health aspects of it are indirect rather than direct.
So let’s do an after the fact poisoning of the well, not with “toxic” sugar, but by adding a substance known as Dr. Robert Lustig.
“Poisoning the well” is when you ridicule a source before their argument is presented in order to bias people against said argument. I purposely delayed mentioning the lead author of the study in order to give you a chance to examine the arguments on your own prior to me saying why Dr. Lustig is not necessarily a trustworthy source of information in this particularly palatable regard.
Dr. Robert Lustig is a pediatric endocrinologist who has made a name for himself by fear mongering about sugar. He’s authored three books demonizing the substance, and his personal brand and profile have a vested interest in proving that sugar is Mephistopheles incarnate. Were he to author a study that determined his proclamations regarding sugar thus far had been in error it wouldn’t bode well for his future sugar = Satan book sales.
Dr. Robert Lustig is a leading “authority” regarding the alleged toxicity of sugar. How did he become so? The reason is quite obvious: He is one of the people making most noise about it. What this means is that scientific consensus proclaims that Lustig is crying wolf, but that’s boring; it doesn’t generate headlines. Having a person be “controversial” and say, “Everyone else
is wrong. I have the true knowledge” is an excellent sales / branding strategy. It has certainly helped spread Lustig’s name.
Did I mention I have an MBA in marketing and know a lot about such things?
Were Lustig to find that, as direct causation, sugar is no more toxic than any other empty calories; his bank account most likely would suffer. This is something worthy of consideration.
The media heaps attention upon the contrarian, and Lustig most certainly is that. The status quo does not make for exciting news. For my piece regarding sugar (that link again) and it’s alleged toxicity I spoke with real authorities: legitimate experts with nothing to gain by vilifying sugar. I interviewed Alan Aragon, Susan Kleiner (PhD, RD) and Raylene Reimer (PhD, RD) to get the straight facts.
What reality boils down to is twofold:
- High sugar intake contributes to obesity. Accumulation of higher levels of body fat is not healthy. Thus, there is an indirect link between sugar intake and negative health outcomes.
- High sugar intake means lowered intake of more nutrient dense foods. Therefore, there is an indirect link between consuming lots of sugar and having a negative affect on one’s health by failing to take in enough nutrients that are proven to have positive health benefits.
According to some Facebook “experts,” my article was an “appeal to authority,” which is apparently some phrase you can throw around that essentially proclaims: Because you talked to experts who base their opinions on the weight of the latest scientific understanding of the evidence your argument is invalid because “appeal to authority.”
Yeah. The problem is that such keyboard commandos don’t actually understand what the logical fallacy “appeal to authority” means. When you proclaim gluten to be toxic because your CrossFit instructor said so, that’s an appeal to an irrelevant authority. Appeal to irrelevant authority is when the “expert” being quoted is unqualified. Asserting this logical fallacy is not a valid means of dismissing the assertions of legitimate experts regarding their specific field of study and/or of scientific consensus. (There is also “appeal to anonymous authority,” an example of which would be “I know scientists who say sugar is toxic.”)
There are times when appeal to relevant authority is a valid criticism. Watch the movie The Man Who Knew Infinity. It’s a biographical drama about a poor math whiz from India who is admitted to Cambridge University prior to World War I. In an argument between mathematicians, saying, “Such a formula is impossible because Professor Stuffypants says so” isn’t a viable argument. You need to do the actual proofs. It is unlikely that such circumstances apply in writing about nutrition for the lay reader, however. Instead, it is important to determine what the best educated and most respected in the field have to say on a specific subject.
I interviewed legitimate experts. Dr. Lustig is one of a handful of scientists engaging in sugar alarmism. The scientific consensus doesn’t proclaim it toxic. Lustig’s opinion is that of a small minority, which is a big part of the reason why the media blows it up. Sensationalism sells.
But surely some keyboard warrior with a blog has who quoted a PubMed abstract proclaiming sugar to be worse than Nickelback is worth taking seriously. Yeah, no. Something I’ve learned via years as a health and fitness journalist is that asking respected experts what they think is far more valuable than trawling through PudMed for a snippet of “conclusions” that reinforce one’s cognitive bias.
Due to being a dare-I-say respected columnist for numerous major media outlets, I have the benefit of being able to secure interviews with some of the smartest people on the planet in regards to specific questions regarding diet and exercise. These aren’t uneducated keyboard commandos quoting a few abstracts, these are professors and researchers with PhDs and MDs who have read all the studies in full, and they know what makes for a robust study vs. a poor one, and they’ve even conducted their own studies and have spent decades immersed in examining these subjects.
So ask yourself: whom do you trust? Your brother-in-law who mouths off on Facebook and has no understanding of what appeal to authority actually is but thinks Dr. Lustig is right because he garners much media attention? Or would you rather listen to a PhD, RD with an excellent reputation for relaying the current knowledge about nutrition and its effects on the human body?
Separating Fly Shit from Pepper
When I was an anal-retentive teenager I was dismayed to learn that the waterproof Seiko combination digital and analog watch I’d received for Christmas would gain about a second a month when compared to the national time signal. I took it to a watch repairman, told him my chronological tale of woe, and he changed my life.
“It’s a nice watch,” he said. “Who cares if it’s off by a second a month? It’s trying to separate fly shit from pepper.”
Thirty-two years later and I still remember that repairman and his wise words, because I didn’t end up taking a job that involves the hyper-measurement of the rates of radioactive decay of certain elements.
The issue of whether sugar is either indirectly or directly harmful is the same as attempting to separate fly shit from pepper when one considers of the bigger picture. The bigger picture, again, is twofold: 1) a high sugar intake often directly contributes to development of obesity, which in turn is often unhealthy; 2) a high refined sugar intake means healthy calories are replaced with unhealthy ones – the “empty” calories of sugar are pushing out more nutrient dense foods, and this has a negative effect on health.
What Matters Most?
Researchers can geek out all they like over the minutia. As my friend and registered dietitian Jennifer Sygo says, “The science of nutrition is complex. Eating shouldn’t be.”
So how does the issue of sugar intake affect you and what you eat? As an average eating, non-dietitian regular person who wants to live lean and be healthy, what is the thing that matters most about sugar?
What matters most is that sugar tastes damn good. Additionally is the fact that sugar is easily ingested via liquid form.
We drink way too much sugar, either via sodas or juice or sports drinks or alcohol, and this gives a mega dose of calories without affecting satiety. In the case of alcohol, the added negative effect of drunken second greasy dinner is especially problematic. Such things directly contribute to obesity.
In terms of solid food, sugar is yummy and promotes overconsumption. We unfortunately have transformed into a snacking culture that views food more as a source of pleasure than a source of fuel. Pleasure-based eating is a sure road towards obesity, and consuming sugar is most pleasurable.
Here is the thing about sugar and it’s most important reality: It’s a treat, so consider it as such.
Forget the fear mongering and the forbidden-fruit mentality that comes along with it, and instead rationally reduce your intake to times when you desire it most. Enjoy it guilt free without considering it a toxic substance, because it’s not. Manage your intake wisely as a way to stick to what is mostly a healthy diet that includes regular indulgence so as to retain one’s sanity.
That is the most important thing to know about sugar.
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James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.