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Just time for Halloween, new study adds weight to view that sugar is worse than just 'empty calories'

Just time for Halloween, new study adds weight to view that sugar is worse than just 'empty calories'

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In 2011, The New York Times Magazine published a long piece by Gary Taubes under the headline: “Is Sugar Toxic?” In the article, Taubes delves into the research and arguments of Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UCSF who is perhaps best known for his hugely popular YouTube video, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” which has racked up nearly 6 million views since 2009.

In Taubes' summary of Lustig’s strongly held views, sugar emerges as the insidious invisible force driving America’s epidemic of chronic diseases:

If Lustig is right, then our excessive consumption of sugar is the primary reason that the numbers of obese and diabetic Americans have skyrocketed in the past 30 years. But his argument implies more than that. If Lustig is right, it would mean that sugar is also the likely dietary cause of several other chronic ailments widely considered to be diseases of Western lifestyles — heart disease, hypertension and many common cancers among them.

While Taubes acknowledges that the evidence linking sugar to such chronic disease epidemics isn’t conclusive, he said his years of covering diet and chronic disease as a journalist has led him similar conclusions. “Sugar scares me, too, obviously,” he writes.

Just in time for Halloween, Lustig was back in the news this week with a frightful new study published in the journal Obesity that lends further support to the idea that sugar is contributing to the spread of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

The study tracked a group of 43 black and Latino children, ages 9 to 18, who were at high risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders — and who also consumed a lot of sugar. Researchers kept the kids’ diets the same, but they swapped out dietary sugar with starchy carbohydrates, reducing their total calorie intake from sugar and fructose from 28 percent to 10 percent. After nine days of this reduced sugar diet, the kids didn’t lose weight but did show striking improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and other similar measures.

Dr. Frank Hu of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health told The New York Times that the research “strengthens the existing evidence on the relationship between added sugar intake and metabolic disease.”

Lustig spoke to National Health Journalism Fellows in our program in 2012. At the time, he strongly advocated for taxes on high-sugar vehicles, such as soda. “Personal responsibility does not work with addictive substances,” Lustig told fellows. “Taxation is cheap to implement, doesn’t cause market distortion and raises money.”

Lustig reiterated that argument in an op-ed in the Guardian on Tuesday.

In 2014, Berkeley, Calif. successfully passed a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, and Mexico passed a similar tax on soft drinks and junk foods in 2013. As Margot Sanger-Katz reported in the Times a couple weeks ago in an article headlined “Yes, Soda Taxes Seem to Cut Soda Drinking,” early data from Mexico show the tax was followed by a drop in soda sales. The Times’ editorial board weighed in with the health implications: “Soda taxes could be one public health tool for states with high numbers of obese adults or children… Many countries could almost certainly improve public health by matching or improving upon Mexico’s beverage tax.”

Few would suggest the U.S. is on the brink of such a tax; Britain appears much closer at the moment. But with a growing body of evidence that suggests too much sugar can have dramatic impacts on our susceptibility to chronic disease, the policy fight over sugar is only likely to intensify in coming years.

More locally, expect a few tense standoffs between news-tracking moms and candy-happy kids on your block this weekend.

Related posts

This Is Your Brain on Sugar

Is Sugar to Blame for Our Chronic Disease Epidemics?

Big Gulps for Little Leagues: Health advocates fight beverage industry’s diversion tactics

Photo by peasap via Flickr.



The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.

The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Symposium on Domestic Violence provides reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The next session will be offered virtually on Friday, March 31. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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