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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sweet thoughts (updated)

A friend of mine sent me a link to this interesting YouTube clip.  It's a 1 1/2 hour lecture by Dr. Robert H. Lustig called Sugar: The Bitter Truth.  If you've got the time to spare, go ahead and check it out now. 

He brings up some interesting things, but unfortunately, there's holes in his speech I could drive a truck through.  I can't remember which one it was, but one of his claims was so over the top, Eldest, who came to watch with me about 20 minutes into the lecture, actually choked on her tea.  I had to pause the clip so she could recover. *L* 

Before I go into things in detail, though, I would have to point out the main problem I have with this lecture.  If the good doctor's assertions were correct, I would be thin.  Dh, Eldest and I should all be as thin as Youngest - if not thinner.  Dh shouldn't have T2 diabetes, and neither should his father.  My in-laws should be thin.  My parents should be thin.  My aunt should be thin.  My late grandmother and her sister not only should have been thin, but they shouldn't have out lived all the thin members of the family.  My aunt shouldn't have outlived her husband, and 3 of her 4 children should not have come down with cancer (though, ironically enough, my one cousin that hasn't had cancer is the chain smoker who drinks to much).

In other words, I and most of my family are living proof that the doctor's claims aren't quite as assured as he clearly believes.
First off, I will mention the points he made that I found refreshing to see.  Right at the beginning, he blasts the myth that weight is all about calories in/calories out.  He also debunks the myth that excrcise will help a person lose weight (while mentioning the benefits exercise does have).  He also debunks the myth that eating a low fat diet will cause weight loss, and that eating fat makes us fat.

Unfortunately, he has his own myth issues.  For starters, he talks about the Obesity Epidemic, which is largely a media and industry creation, pretty much the same way that everyone else does.  The other is that he used the BMI as if it were a way to measure health, rather than just a tool for categorization.  He mentions, for example, that our average weight has increased and that more people are obese, but he doesn't mention that we've also gotten taller, and that the definition of obese according to the BMI was changed, rendering large numbers of merely "overweight" people "obese," overnight.  Throughout the lecture, he speaks of obesity, in and of itself, as a health problem no different than T2 diabetes or heart disease.  He dismisses genetics right off the hop.

In a nutshell, the good doctor tells us that most of our health problems, including T2 diabeties, and obesity are the fault of fructose.  Especially High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).  He point blank calls fructose a poison, and claims it is toxic.  Evidence to the contrary is only from those in the fructose industry.

I'm not going to go too far into the details of his claims.  Instead, I will direct you to visit Sandy Szwarc's site, where she has quite a number of articles dealing with HFCS, fructose, sugar, etc.   Other recommendations I'd make include Paul Campos' The Obesity Myth, Barry Glassner's The Gospel of Food, or visiting the site, Obesity Myths.

When making his case against fructose, Dr. Lustig frequently brings up carbonated drinks as the big enemy causing obesity in children in particular.  Even after debunking the calories in/calories out myth, he uses the same sorts of mathematical abstractions to tell us that if we drink X amount of pop a day, we'll have gained Y amount of fat in a year.

You know, back when I was about 20-21 years old and thin, I started drinking a lot of Coke.  It wasn't until I noticed my stomach was feeling really weird and made the connection that I realized I was drinking about 2L of Coke a day!  I stopped buying Coke and it didn't take long for my stomach to stop feeling gross.  While I do still indulge in Coke (usually Coke Zero, these days), I've never returned to the large amounts I drank back then.  And I didn't start gaining weight until 5 or so years later, when I became pregnant.  By his math, I should have gained huge amounts of fat in those two years or so that I was drinking so much Coke, then lost it when I stopped.  It was pretty much the only significant source of HFCS I was ingesting.

In the lecture, Dr. Lustig brings up Ancel Keys' Seven Country study chart.  In it, Keys compares rates of heart attacks and stroke in different countries with diet and lifestyle.  Keys concluded that low fat diets meant longer, healthier lives, and his study has been the basis of most nutritional guidelines ever since  Lustig claims that Keys didn't look at fructose, so he did not make what he sees as the real association between those diets and fructose ingestion.  What Lustig neglects to mention is that Keys also left out other countries that didn't fit, ignoring nations with high fat, low carb diets that also had low heart disease and stroke rates.

Lustig, unfortunately, is just as guilty as Keys.  He shows several charts of his own, showing correlations between increased obesity and increased fructose in our diets.  He doesn't factor in any of the many other possibilities that could be causing unnatural weight gain, including dieting itself, increased soy in our diets (in fact, when he shows a label for baby formula with the fructose highlighted, you can clearly see that it contained significant amounts of soy, too), stress and anxiety, sleep disorders, hypothyroidism, side effects of medication, and so on.  None of these things even exist in Lustig's lecture.  Only fructose is the culprit, and according to him, we're all eating huge amounts of it, and that's why we're fat and sick.

There are a number of other issues I had with the lecture (his claim about an obesity epidemic among 6 month olds, made without any substantiation, being just one of them), but I won't bother going into them too much.  He spends a fair amount of time explaining how our bodies deal with fructose, describing it as "alcohol without the buzz."  He equates giving kids a can of pop as being the same as giving them a can of beer - with the obligatory headless fattie photo of a man's beer belly, and a naked fat kid, both of which are familiar photos accompanying obesity scare articles.  The implication, of course, that that's what obesity looks like, which has little to do with reality.

Near the end, Lustig names his 4 steps to solve our health problems.  Number one was to remove all liquid sugar from our diets and drink nothing but water and milk.

Well, that would go over just great in our lactose intolerant family, or those with milk allergies.

For someone who spent so much time telling us that glucose is not fructose, it's interesting that he would go so far as to cut out all sweetened beverages.  Even tea or coffee (both of which can be enjoyed without sweetener, if you like that sort of thing) is out.

Lustig seems to make a good case in his lecture.  He spends time talking about how our bodies deal with fructose from a chemical standpoint. If I hadn't already seen contradictory evidence, I may have been convinced.  Just as one example, I remember an ongoing study I read about a few years back - and I'm having no luck finding again.  Lustig talks about the fructose in fast food, and while this study wasn't looking at fructose, if Lustig were right, it would have shown up in this study.  A French university professor, having just seen the movie Supersize Me, and having some extra money in his budget, decided to see if he could test the movie's premise in a controlled study.  He got volunteers - all young, healthy, male medical students at his university - to eat a minimum of 6000 calories per day, while doing as little exercise as possible.  The calories all had to come from fast food, with two exceptions.  They could have breakfast at home, but it had to be something like bacon and eggs and sausage - all high calorie, fatty foods.  If, at the end of the day, they found they hadn't had 6000 calories, they had to make up the difference by measuring out enough of a high calorie shake they were provided to put them over the 6000 calorie goal.  At the time the article was written, the first group of students had finished and a second group was in the works.  I would love to know the results of this!  To summerize the results of the first study group, there was none of the expected weight gain or health problems among the volunteers.  None.  They felt like crap, but their numbers all came back healthy.

Lustig's claim that we're fat and sick because we all eat lots of fructose is also disproved in my own family.  We're mostly a "from scratch" family.  We do eat use sugar and honey, but since we don't buy a lot of convenience foods, fructose isn't something we ingest a lot.  Yes, we do get some, but nothing like the numbers described in the lecture.  Also, with my parents, grandmother, etc., fructose outside of eating actual fruit was simply never part of their diets.  It wasn't introduced until well after they gained weight, and even when it became common, they (or should I say, we) were still eating the same diets at before - meats and vegetables we grew ourselves, breads we baked ourselves, and so on. My in-laws weren't farmers, but they would not have been exposed to a lot of fructose until well after they'd gained weight, too. 

In the end, I can't say how much I am willing to accept of Lustig's claims against fructose.  The only thing I can be sure of is that the "obesity epidemic" and various other health problems are far more complex that the amount of fructose we eat.

ps: please excuse any typos or weirdly phrased sentences I may have missed.  It's past 2am right now, and my editor's in bed. ;-)

update March 17, 2010:  edited for blatant typos 

Update March 19, 2010: I just wanted to add that I'm not outright dismissing Lustig's claims about sugar, and especially with how sugars are used so much in processed and, especially, "fat free" or "low fat" products.  For those with insulin issues in particular, these hidden sugars would be a problem.  It's just that, as I mentioned above, if his claims were true, it should be clearly seen elsewhere, and it isn't.  Perhaps his views are effected by the fact that, as a pediatrician, he's seeing the sick folks only, and is making assumptions based on those.  Unfortunately, since he's also a part of the anti-obesity/weightloss industry, his claims that only "industry" studies disagree with his is a whole lot of pot and kettle. Either way, blaming the entire "obesity epidemic" on fructose/HFCS (terms he uses almost interchangeably, much like people who use carbon and carbone dioxide interchangeably, as if they were the same thing - that alone should send the BS meter soaring) is simplistic and questionable.  

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