Sugar’s detrimental health effects were purposefully skewed by studies bought by the sugar industry, but now that we know, is it too late?
Earlier this month, the New York Times broke news that shook the world of nutrition medicine: The sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to sway studies that would shift the blame from sugar to fat as the cause of cardiovascular disease.
As outlined by a report published in the JAMA Journal of Internal Medicine, documents discovered by Cristin E. Kearns, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF, in the Harvard and University of Illinois archives showed correspondence between the Sugar Research Foundation (now known as the Sugar Association) and three Harvard scientists.
The Sugar Industry Conspiracy
Scientists — including Dr. Mark Hegsted, who was later appointed head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture, and Dr. Fredrick J. Stare, who served as the chairman of Harvard’s nutrition department — were paid to produce a 1967 study in the New England Journal of Medicine that purposefully minimized the link between sugar and heart disease.
As the New York Times reports, these documents show John Hickson, a top sugar industry executive, discussing a plan to shift the public’s perception with industry-funded research, explaining: “Then we can publish the data and refute our detractors.”
“We are well aware of your particular interest,” Dr. Hegsted responds, “and will cover this as well as we can.”
“It was a very smart thing the sugar industry did, because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion,” Dr. Stanton Glatz, the professor at UCSF responsible for penning the JAMA report, explained to the New York Times.
And it’s this warped shaping of the scientific discussion that has proven to be so detrimental to American society at large.
“What those scientists did skewed the conversation about fat and health for decades, let sugar go pretty much unchecked until it found its way into virtually every packaged product on the market and encouraged millions of Americans to avoid fat in favor of simple carbohydrates. Fat-free cookies, fat-free ice cream, fat-free fat,” says Susan Pierce Thompson, Ph.D., a brain and cognitive scientist and an expert in the psychology of eating, explains.
The Public Health Aftermath
Yet more and more studies come out about the benefits of certain types of fats in our diet as sugar’s alarming health consequences keep surfacing. From the horrifying similarity between sugar’s effects on the brain and body and the effects of highly addictive drugs like cocaine to increased levels of insulin and metabolic disease, it has become starkly clear that this diversion from the facts has set up America to be exactly where we find ourselves today — at the center of a seriously disconcerting obesity epidemic.
With more than 70 percent of American adults categorized as overweight or obese, according to a 2014 study by the Centers for Disease Control, the market’s obsession with low-fat foods has done nothing to decrease obesity rates. (In fact, America has only gotten fatter in the past 25 years). And this new evidence proves that this may be because sugar consumption has been downplayed.
Sugar’s Role in the Obesity Epidemic
One way sugar has proved to be largely responsible for the obesity crisis is by increasing the baseline insulin levels in our bodies. “Even in schoolchildren, who are meant to have stable baselines, there is a dramatic increase of 45 percent in baseline insulin,” Thompson tells LIVESTRONG.COM.
It’s an increase that has blocked our receptors for lectin, the hormone responsible for telling our bodies we’re full, from our brain stems.
“If you think about it evolutionarily, it doesn’t actually make sense that the brain and the body would let us sit and eat and eat until we become obese — because nothing is more profoundly correlated to early death than obesity. So the brain evolved a mechanism to tell us to stop eating, and that was lectin. It says, ‘you’re not hungry, go exercise,’ and coincides with a profound feeling of well-being,” Thompson explains.
So why can’t we just give obese people lectin? Because our brains can no longer register it because of sugar. “Lectin is made by fat cells,” Thompson continues. “The heavier you are, the more lectin you have. So obese people already have the most lectin in their blood. But it took another 10 years or so for people to realize what was happening — that elevated insulin is blocking the lectin at the brainstem and hypothalamus. So what happens is you have a brain that literally shows all the biological markers of starvation, even though the person is obese.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
Are we doomed as a society then? According to Thompson, this is only going to get worse before it gets better, with one-third of societies’ children now growing up to be diabetic. But there may be a light at the end of the sugar-free tunnel. “What we’ve found out is that if you stop eating sugar and flour, your baseline insulin levels will come down.”
And it’s not just lower insulin levels you can expect from cutting out sugar and flour (which is converted in your body to glucose, aka sugar), but it can also restore the dopamine levels your body is able to register. “When you keep eating sugar, your dopamine receptors downregulate or disappear, like what happens with cocaine and heroin addiction, but dopamine downregulation can be reversed — if you stop eating sugar.”
To Thompson, it’s going to take a lot more for us to turn around our country’s sugar addiction and curb the tremendous detrimental health effects than just a few individuals changing their diets. She believes that a movement will have to take place similar to the movement around cigarettes. “People still smoke, but much less than they use to. We now have set up society so that it’s comfortable and livable for non-smokers. It’s very uncomfortable to live as a non-sugar eater in our society right now.”
So how can you start to go sugar-free? Thompson has been in the process of creating a movement called Bright Line Eating, in which people are encouraged to live with “bright lines,” or firm boundaries, against eating sugar and flour in the same way that people have firm boundaries for smoking.
But if you aren’t ready to fully commit or want to ease yourself into removing sugar and flour from your diet, we reached out to one of our favorite dietirians, Maggie Moon, M.S., RD, for some tips.
“The hardest part of giving up sugar and refined flour is that they are everywhere in the food supply, and people need to make a huge effort to avoid them,” Moon says.
With that in mind, Moon recommends sticking to safe bets by only consuming natural, unrefined sugar that comes from the likes of whole fruits and vegetables, nuts and whole grains. Also remember to avoid refined flours, which just don’t have the micronutrients the body needs to function optimally.