When it comes to the dangers of sugar, Dr. Robert Lustig and Dr. Frank Lipman don’t mince words.
“Sugar is a drug. Sugar sets off the same biological mechanisms that are triggered by cocaine and other drugs,” says Lipman, founder and director of New York’s Eleven Eleven Wellness Center and author of “10 Reasons You Feel Old and Get Fat.” “Drugs and sugar hijack the brain. You get physically addicted to it. You crave it, and when you stop eating sugar, you have withdrawal effects.”
Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, shares similar views on sugar. “The reason substances are addictive is because you can know that they're ruining your health, they're ruining your life, they're ruining your family's life, they're chewing through all of your dollars and you can't help it,” he says. “The biochemistry is greater than your ability to control it with behavior. That's why they're addictive. That's the definition of addictive.”
But sugar, unlike recreational drugs and even alcohol, doesn’t carry the stigma of addiction and epidemic. “You can get a sugar fix on every corner,” says Lipman. “You can’t get the other drugs quite that easily.”
Sugar and the fat-free food era
In the 1960s, nutrition advocates and researchers began pointing the finger of blame at fats and sugars for the increase in cardiovascular disease and heart problems. Heart attacks, strokes, and other problems were becoming more common in the American medical landscape, and doctors and patients needed an answer.
“There was a holy war that went on between two camps in the nutrition field: the ‘saturated fat is the bad guy’ camp and the ‘sugar is the bad guy’ camp,” Lustig says. The individuals blaming saturated fat won out, and for the next 30 years, saturated fats, and all fats in general, were on the receiving end of the medical community’s ire. The experts who held that sugar was the real problem slipped into the background and fell mostly silent.
Fats were banished from Americans’ plates, and doctors and nutritionists advised patients to avoid foods like red meat and eggs. Food manufacturers removed fats of all kind, giving rise to the fat-free food movement. “The problem is when you take the fat out of food, it tastes like cardboard,” Lustig says. “What can you substitute to make it palatable? Sugar, because everyone loves sugar.”
The fat was gone, but the health problems weren’t disappearing. In fact, they were getting worse, and new problems were cropping up.
“If sugar were just empty calories, then we wouldn’t have seen a worsening of the problems, but we did, and the reason is because sugar is not just empty calories,” Lustig says. “Sugar[s] are toxic calories because of the way fructose is metabolized in the liver. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease wasn’t even a disease until 1980, and now it affects 35 percent of all Americans,” Lustig says.
Lipman puts it more pointedly: “We got conned. We were misled to believe that saturated fat is bad for us. Now, we know: sugar is the problem.”
Today, the American public is paying for this nutrition battle. More Americans than ever are diagnosed with insulin resistance, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and other metabolic syndromes. Several cancers, including ovary, breast, and pancreatic, are correlated with sugar intake.
The war against sugar
If sugar is the problem, removing it from our food is the simple answer. That, Lipman says, isn’t as easy as it sounds.
“Most people are sugar addicts, and most people need to understand that they’re going to withdraw,” he says. “It’s not about psychology or willpower. A lot of it comes down to the fact that it is a physical addiction to a drug.”
So then how do Lipman and Lustig suggest you quit? However you can, really. And that starts with understanding where sugar is in your diet.
If you’ve not read an ingredient label in a while, take a look. Many processed foods, even from brands that tout health benefits and improved nutritional quality, sneak in added sugar. Why? Because sugar makes things taste good. Manufacturers know it, marketers know it, and now more consumers are becoming aware of the sneaky practice.
“The problem that we have is not that people don’t know how much sugar is in any given food,” Lustig says. The Food and Drug Administration will hopefully help consumers understand that a bit better in the coming years. In 2018, the new food label will require food manufacturers to list added sugar in the label.
“However, there’s a much easier way of dealing with this issue,” Lustig says. “It’s called real food.”
Lipman echoes that sentiment. “Eat the real whole foods, as close to nature as possible,” he says. Lipman, who advocates a sugar “cleanse,” tells patients they’ll notice immediately how much better they feel when they cut out sugar from their diet cold turkey.
“My experience has been that the majority of people don’t do as well [with weaning themselves off sugar],” he says. “The majority of people do better when we stop it completely.” Lipman says patients who quit sugar notice “they’re feeling clearer, losing weight, have less bloating.”
Lipman adds, “Most people, once you get off sugar, you can have some sugar, but it doesn’t make you feel great, and you realize maybe you had too much sugar and you’re not going to do that again. All of these things just become your new normal, and when you eat sugar again and feel bad, you realize that’s not normal.”
It’s important to go into the sugar-quitting process knowing you’re going to have withdrawals, Lipman says. Those are normal. As a “drug,” sugar has a hold on your body. The important thing is to identify where your sugar crutches are — maybe it’s those two packets of sugar with your coffee every morning, your usual handful of chocolate candies after lunch, or a soda with dinner — and eliminate them. You can go cold turkey as Lipman suggests, or you can try removing the sugar bit by bit until it’s out of your life.
Eliminating sugar appears to be the most effective way to reduce your risks for several harmful health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be living a life that’s healthier for you and your family.