Let’s say you’re a registered dietician who works for companies like Nestle and Coca-Cola and you want to help out your sugar-producing clients — what do you do? Well, you start by writing a piece in the Huffington Post titled, Debunking 3 Sugar Myths.
And in that article, you would walk a fine line between demonizing sugar and legitimizing it as a food. Half of you knows the truth and the other half likes cashing checks. The only thing to sort out is which motivation — helping people or making money — will win out.
Jane Dummer has proved she’s about money more than facts while simultaneously proving my point that credentials don’t matter in this game. When uncovering the hidden truth about nutrition and exercise, “follow the credentials” and “follow the money” are equally effective strategies.
In her Huffington Post fluff piece, Dummer’s attempt to debunk three sugar myths inadvertently pushes the reader toward the continuing consumption of — you guessed it — sugar. Let’s take a look at the three myths and Dummer’s explanations, along with my humble opinion
Myth #1: Is Sugar Toxic?
Stating sugar is toxic is not only irresponsible, it is incorrect. And its comparison to alcohol and tobacco is simply not reasonable. Describing sugar as toxic is extreme and it diverts attention away from the real problem of total overconsumption by North Americans.
Not so fast. First, let’s debate the merits of the word toxic. And then there’s some side points to cover.
Toxic: Containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation
The human body must tightly regulate blood sugar levels because too little sugar leads to serious health complications and too much sugar is toxic. How tight is this regulation? A normal blood sugar level is equal to slightly less than one teaspoon of sugar dissolved in blood.
A diabetic reading is 1/4 teaspoon above that. This is why your body works very hard to keep this number regulated. Too much sugar — especially without the ability to tightly regulate it — is acutely toxic.
People who disagree with me will say something like, “Everything is toxic, even water is toxic if you drink too much of it.” That’s not entirely true.
The overconsumption of water doesn’t create some sort of buildup in the system of a “toxin” — instead, it flushes electrolytes out of the body to the point that the body is starved for them. That’s not toxicity, it’s just unfortunate. Sugar, however, does directly cause a problem.
Furthermore, I don’t know of a “fat” toxicity. Does your body go haywire if you eat too much healthy fat? Don’t think so — though if that’s the case I’m willing to change my mind.
And that’s still only half the story because toxicity can be both acute and chronic.
Follow me here:
Chronic exposure to hyperglycemia can lead to cellular dysfunction that may become irreversible over time, a process that is termed glucose toxicity.
Hyperglycemia is the technical term for high blood glucose (blood sugar). High blood glucose happens when the body has too little insulin or when the body can’t use insulin properly.
It is debatable whether insulin resistance (the body’s inability to use insulin properly) is caused by chronically high sugar intake, obesity, or a genetic predisposition to insulin resistance through the mechanism of sugar or obesity. Whether insulin resistance is caused by sugar or obesity (or the predisposition angle) matters not. If sugar doesn’t outright cause insulin resistance, it certainly leads to obesity through multiple mechanisms, which then would be linked to insulin resistance.
This is chronic toxicity — ill effects on the human body over time. As I’ve said before, obesity is not a disease, it’s a symptom of the body being harmed. The fairest conclusion here is that sugar is acutely toxic and likely chronically toxic to some degree. That’s not to say that eating sugar from time to time will kill you or that it’s the ONLY cause of our current health woes, but arguing that it’s not toxic falls more on the side of cashing checks for Dummer than telling the truth.
Oddly, she goes on a tangent:
It is too simplistic and unhelpful to blame sugar alone for the health crisis. Sugar is a food that is part of a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. Sugar is a source of energy (calories) for the brain and working muscles. Sugar is seldom eaten alone, but more often as an ingredient in foods that contribute fibre, vitamins and minerals such as fruits, vegetables, grain and milk products. It is not sugar that is the dietary delinquent, but the portion or dose people consume it in that is the concern.
That tangent is found under her first myth heading, though it has nothing to do with her first myth. She’s simply being opportunistic and slipping in a few extra misnomers.
Sugar — if she’s talking about the refined stuff — is not part of a balanced diet nor is it a legitimate source of energy, nor is it required to any degree for the brain and working muscles.
She’s absolutely right that the dose matters. That applies to most things. The fact that the body can adequately defend itself against various levels of sugar does not make the sugar nontoxic. And just because the body can adequately defend itself from acute sugar toxicity does not mean that it can also adequately defend itself against chronic sugar toxicity.
Myth #2: Is there a sugar “silver bullet” for your meal plan?
The answer is no. Just as completely cutting sugar out of the diet is not a silver bullet, considering one form of sugar as better than the rest is not scientifically substantiated. As North Americans, we consume a mix of sugars in our diets, including sucrose, fructose and glucose. Did you know table sugar — known as sucrose — and high fructose corn syrup have a similar composition of 50 per cent glucose and 50 per cent fructose? And the popular natural sweetener agave syrup averages 84 per cent fructose.
Her argument that one form of sugar isn’t better than another is a straw man argument. Anyone who argues that sugar is bad for you and should be cut out of the diet isn’t simultaneously arguing that one form of sugar is better than another. There are people who argue that some are favorable than others, but that has nothing to do with the argument that sugar itself is bad for you.
The entire text of her argument for myth two is based on that straw man as she proceeds to break down the different types of sugars and then slip in a nod for the sugar her friends in big business love to use (mainly because it’s subsidized by the government): High Fructose Corn Syrup.
I’m not going to waste my time rehashing the viability of different types of sugars and their affects on the human body because I refuse to debate straw men. If we’re going to talk about sugar being a silver bullet then let’s talk about it being a silver bullet. Confusing the discussion with talk about which sugars are better or worse than others brings the discussion back to sugar being in someones diet, not out of it.
If you are eating according to the Standard American Diet (SAD), cutting sugar out of your meal plan would greatly improve your body composition. However, I do acknowledge that cutting sugar is not a magic bullet, and that’s because there are simply too many factors at play.
It also depends on how you define sugar. Dummers is targeting added sugar, while my argument would put sugar in context by defining it as added sugar AND those foods which quickly turn to sugar in the body, such as refined carbohydrates or grains.
In that case, cutting sugar from your diet would likely result in exponentially greater health outcomes. It’s still not a silver bullet, because the pervasiveness of vegetable oils and chemicals is still unaddressed.
Many times we hear high-level statistics and findings from studies about sugar being a silver bullet or dietary delinquent and aren’t given full detail on how the study was conducted or who the study was conducted on. The takeaway here is simple. Remember these three questions: 1) Are the diets in the study artificially contrived and based on animal models (e.g. not resembling a typical human diet)? 2) Was there over-feeding of one particular sugar or ingredient in the experimental diets? 3) Who were the participants in the study? All of these answers will help us to best interpret the study findings.
Dummer is right that just because something was claimed to be “studied” and reported on doesn’t mean the study was legit. But one of her takeaways is just as illegitimate as the studies she’s alluding to.
Are the diets artificially contrived and based on animal based foods (e.g. not resembling a typical human diet)?
Whoa, back the truck up. The typical neolithic human diet is what we’re trying to get away from. And alluding to diets based on animal foods being “contrived” or somehow a gimmick is ridiculous. I’ve already talked about the power of animal based foods in the human diet. And that was only a fraction of the discussion.
Myth #3: Is sugar the cause of obesity?
Stating sugar is the sole cause of obesity is not true. Obesity is a complex disease with many factors. Weight gain is a result of an imbalance between energy intake from all foods and beverages, and energy output (including basic body functions and physical activity). Sugar, like other carbohydrates, contributes calories. However, in terms of body weight, there is nothing unique about the calories from sugar. The same holds true for other sources of carbohydrates as well as protein and fat.
This is perhaps the worst of Dummer’s arguments and presents another straw man. The vast majority of people arguing against sugar are not arguing that it’s the sole contributor to obesity, they’re arguing that it’s a leading contributor.
When you take someone’s position and polarize it, it becomes easier to defeat. If sugar wasn’t the problem it is, there would be no need for this chicanery.
Her statement that weight gain is a solely a result of an imbalance of energy (calories-in, calories-out argument) is an oversimplification of the truth. The calories-in, calories-out model is a broken way to look at this complex issue. It fails to account for how Sam Feltham can eat 5000 calories and not gain weight. It doesn’t account for how people who cut a modest amount of calories can’t indefinitely lose weight.
That’s because — in context — calories are a very small part of the equation. They’re also poorly calculated and the definition of a calorie is automatically out of context because not all calories are created equally. Combine that with her repeated fallacy that calories from sugar are the same as calories from other carbohydrates or fat is why we have a giant gym/fitness/nutrition complex and a growing obesity epidemic.
Added sugar provides no nutritional benefit. It’s a calorie of energy that provides no nutrition while having the side effect of creating a significant hormone response and being highly inflammatory. An additional side effect of sugar consumption (either added or as defined the way I defined it earlier) is increased hunger and possible addiction and dependency. This leads to the continued overconsumption of sugar and other foods, increasing overall calorie intake.
Ingesting 1000 calories of fat will turn off your hunger. Ingesting 1000 calories of sugar will make hunger rampant. Additionally, 1000 calories of fat will provide vital nutrition that your body can use while 1000 calories of sugar provides nothing. To say that there is no difference between the two (and to specifically suggest that calories from sugar are not “unique”) is not just misleading, it’s flat out wrong. Any rational thinker would absolutely classify calories from sugar as unique. She continues:
In fact, fat has twice the number of calories as carbohydrates per weighted serving. Because no single factor causes weight gain, avoiding one specific food group or nutrient will not stop weight gain or lead to weight loss.
Stating that fat has twice the number of calories per weighted serving is a meaningless scare tactic and is totally out of context. What does it mean? What’s the purpose for that argument? It says nothing about nutrition. It says nothing about weight loss or gain. It says nothing about anything meaningful. I would hope that a trained dietician could provide more than fun facts in a Huffington Post column.
Furthermore, avoiding one specific macronutrient can lead to weight loss. There are two macronutrients recognized as absolutely vital to the human diet: fat and protein (you will die if you exclude them). Carbohydrates — in context — are a nonessential macronutrient (meaning you won’t die if you exclude them). Cutting fat and protein is a losing strategy. Cutting carbohydrates is a potentially viable strategy and study after study has shown that carbohydrate exclusion (inspiring Ketosis) results in weight loss and a myriad of other health benefits.
This isn’t an argument for Ketosis, Atkins, or carbohydrate exclusion, it’s an argument again Dummer’s fallacy that cutting a macronutrient won’t result in weight loss (assuming someone as fat to lose — and I’m forced to use her term “weight loss” when the discussion should really be about “fat loss.”).
Added sugar (which represents unique calories), the consumption of high glycemic carbohydrates (namely grains) which quickly turn to sugar, and a handful of other factors are directly responsible for the obesity epidemic. While there is no one cause, sugar and processed carbohydrates certainly are in a head to head battle with processed vegetable and seed oils for being the leading cause.
How do you feel about Dummer’s arguments? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s helped tens of thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and now offers all of his signature programs through a “pay what you want” model.