Are We Poisoning Ourselves and Our Children with Too Much Sugar?

One of the big health discussions in the news this week is about a story which aired on 60 Minutes Sunday.  Popular medical journalist Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviewed Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of clinical pediatrics and endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco.  Dr. Lustig says sugar, in any form, is responsible for many of the illnesses plaguing Americans including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and even cancer.  Through the treatment of his own patients, sick and obese children, Dr. Lustig concludes, “sugar is toxic.”

That headline has struck a nerve with viewers, especially parents.  With the average American consuming 22.2 teaspoons of added sugar a day, that is more than four times the recommended amount by the American Heart Association (5 teaspoons for women, 7.5 teaspoons for men, 3 teaspoons for children).  For adults, that is the equivalent of almost one can of soda.  Are we really poisoning our children and ourselves with sugar?  It is not necessarily true that sugar itself is a poison, but the amount and prevalence in our diets which Dr. Lustig believes is indeed poisoning our bodies.

Sugar is not just “sugar “on the packages of food labels.  Sugar can be any of the following:  Brown-rice syrup, corn sweetener, corn syrup, or corn syrup solids, cane Juice, dehydrated cane juice, dextrin, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltodextrin, malt syrup, maltose, mannitol, maple syrup, molasses, raw sugar, rice Syrup, saccharose, sorbitol, sorghum or sorghum syrup, sucrose, syrup, treacle, turbinado sugar, and xylose.  Check the labels of some of your favorite foods, and you may be surprised that sugar (in one of its forms) is one of the main ingredients.

Some of these words have been getting bad press for years and are on parents’ radar when choosing packaged foods at the grocery store for their children.  However, some publically believed to be the “healthier sugars” like honey and brown rice syrup, according to Dr. Lustig in the interview , are as much a part of the problem as the ones we may have been trying to avoid, like high-fructose corn syrup.   Cassie Wrich, Registered Dietitian with the Hillcrest Diabetes Center, confirms Dr. Lustig’s bold statement, “There is no difference between high-fructose corn syrup and regular sugar. They are both equally toxic.”

How Does Sugar Impact Our Long-term Health?

When we grab that can of soda or reach for a flavored yogurt, what harm is that having on our long-term health?  It has long been reported high sugar consumption is a factor in common health risks like obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and hypertension.  However, whereas many of these conditions were diagnosed in adults, today more children are being diagnosed, negatively impacting their health at an earlier age.  As the pioneer in the war against sugar, Dr. Lustig brings the focus to our lifestyle and food choices, which he says “are killing us”.  The reason Dr. Lustig is getting national attention is in large part due to the fact he has singled out one thing, added sugar, as the number reason for health problems in our country, which he says “Seventy-five percent of it is preventable.”


Start with Small Changes.

This news is enough to make you take a second look at that soda can.  Cassie Wrich RD/LD, says that is a good place to start, “Knowing that one can of soda is over the recommended limit for women and almost the limit for men as far as sugar intake, may convince people to stop drinking soda and sugary drinks.”  If making the switch is difficult, try adding slices of fruit or vegetables (think lemon or cucumber), frozen berries, or a dash of fruit juice to flavor the water.  Also, keep water accessible by taking a bottle of water with you to work or in the car.  You are more likely to drink something that is within reach, right?  Think small changes first, don’t sabotage your efforts by going cold turkey.

Keep it all in perspective.

As news outlets jump on the head-turning headline, “Sugar is toxic”, it does not mean we are going to stop eating Grandma’s cookies and apple pie.  Sugar is more than just an irresistible ingredient in some of our favorite foods; it is part of our culture and traditions.  This week’s focus on Dr. Lustig’s war against sugar gives us reason to pause and join the conversation about what we are eating and how that impacts our health today and in the future.  Balance is important in our diets to maintain healthy weight, as well as improving our overall health.  We could say take this news with a spoonful of sugar, but in this context, we better leave that alone.