For decades fat was demonized as the reason for America’s weight gain. An entire industry dedicated to low-fat products followed.
And yet, since 1980, obesity rates soared.
Soon after, the medical community — and the White House — pushed the mathematical idea of eat less and exercise more.
Makes sense. And, yet, the obesity epidemic continued.
That’s because “a calorie is not a calorie” insists Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics in the division of endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco. “They would argue that kids eat too much and exercise too little but that doesn’t explain the obese newborn — they don’t diet and exercise.
Sugar, Lustig says, is the culprit. He is so convinced, in fact, that he’s become a bit of a celeb by touting his “calorie is not a calorie” catchphrase in lectures around the country and via his New York Times bestseller, Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease (Plume, $14).
Lustig’s latest offering is the TV program, Sweet Revenge: Turning the Tables on Processed Food, which will air at 10 p.m. Friday on WPBT-PBS2. The 60-minute presentation is the result of a collaboration between PBS and Baptist Health South Florida, whose sponsorship helped secure its airing locally. (Baptist would not reveal its financial outlay.)
“Certain calories cause disease more than others. I knew this in college. I majored in nutritional biochemistry. But in med school they beat it out of me with ‘a calorie is a calorie. Eat less, exercise more.’ That’s part of why I’ve become a voice for social change, whether I wanted to be or not. The science says otherwise,” Lustig said in a telephone interview from his San Francisco office.
In Sweet Revenge, Lustig features Cindy Gershen, a California bistro owner who speaks about her 100-pound weight loss after she abandoned sugary foods; Lustig attributes today’s obesity epidemic to the accessibility of sugary, processed foods.
Take yogurt, often promoted as healthy eating. Lustig recommends eating plain yogurt (you can add fresh fruit) or find a brand whose sugar content is 7 grams max. Many flavored yogurts contain sugar grams in the high teens, or the high 20s. Eating one such container would blow your entire day’s allotment of added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends the following maximum levels of added sugar per day: 24 grams (six teaspoons) for women; 36 grams (nine teaspoons) for men; 20-32 grams (5 to 8 teaspoons) for children 9 and up; 12 grams (3 teaspoons) for children ages 4-8.
“Yogurt is the biggest canard on the planet,” Lustig said.
Sugar’s impact on the body is a recipe for failure: Sugar alters the body’s hormones and stimulates the need to consume more food. As with some recreational drugs, sugar spikes dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Thus, you need to consume more to get the same sugar high. Sugar consumption, like alcoholism, can lead to fatty liver, which can cause liver failure, cirrhosis and liver cancer.
And sugar is not so easily avoided by just bypassing the spoonful we dip into our morning coffee. Sugar is added to many brands of ketchup, potato chips, peanut butter, sports drinks and juices, sunflower kernels (even those touted as natural with a “non GMO” tag) and the aforementioned yogurt. Unless you know what to read on a food label you might not be avoiding sugar as well as you believe. The food industry can choose from 56 different names for sugar in its lists of ingredients. Some of the code words for added sugar are strawberry puree, fruit puree, brown rice syrup, evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup.
“This is all on purpose, it’s more subterfuge,” Lustig blasts. (Sweet Revenge does not discuss diet drinks as an option. “We don’t have the data; I am all about the science and since we don’t have the science yet to be specific, there is data that goes both ways, until we’re absolutely sure I make a habit to not address it,” Lustig said.)
Part of the problem is that sugar is inexpensive and used as a preservative to extend a food’s shelf life and, as the nation demanded low-fat substitutes, sugar use increased to make the food taste palatable.
“Sugar was the most important commodity on the planet for two millennium until oil took over in the 20th century,” Lustig said. “Sugar is still the second most-important commodity and drives markets in the world. It would be very wise to modulate our production and consumption and we are not doing it.”
Baptist Health South Florida became involved with the presentation of Sweet Revenge after its CEO Brian Keeley met Lustig at an international health conference last year at the Fontainebleau. More than 100 speakers took to the stage for brief presentations. But Lustig, standing before a 50-foot screen, captured the room like a rock star. An entire hall of doctors stood and repeated his mantra: “A calorie is not a calorie.”
Color Keeley impressed. “He was absolutely passionate about it.”
The nonprofit hospital got involved, Keeley said, because “our mission is to improve the health and well-being of the communities we serve and that doesn’t mean to fill up our hospitals. If we can keep them healthy and out of hospitals and avoiding diabetes, this well help us from an economic standpoint.”
Type 2 childhood diabetes, which was not on record in 1980, is “95-percent preventable through diet and exercise” Keeley said. “But because of obesity, it’s an epidemic where one in three Americans will wind up with diabetes and if you’re Hispanic it’s one out of two. That’s profound.”
The low-fat craze didn’t work because our bodies need fats. Particularly, the good fats such as the Omega-3s found in wild fish and flaxseeds. These reduce inflammation, the cause of many diseases. “Bad fats” or Omega-6s, found in corn-fed beef, cause inflammation, however. Trans fats are never good.
Carbs get a bad rap, too. We need these for fuel but we should be getting these via high-fiber foods like vegetables, fruits (the whole fruit, not just the juice which lacks the fiber content) and whole grains. Processed carbs in cakes, cookies, sodas and sports drinks are the problem.
“The thing that’s so fascinating is that everyone came out with these low-fat diets and one would surmise that obesity rates would decline. But what happened is that when everyone embraced low-fat diets obesity peaked,” Keeley said. “While we reduced the amount of fat because Americans demanded that, to compensate for the taste and consistency of food, the industry added sugar and high fructose corn syrup, which is cheaper than water from a profitability standpoint.
“I don’t want to Satan-ize the food industry. I don’t think anybody conceived that they would create a huge obesity problem,” Keeley continued. “But over 60 percent of people are obese … and there is a direct correlation between weight and healthcare.”
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‘Sweet Revenge: Turning the Tables on Processed Food’ airs at 10 p.m. Friday on WPBT-PBS2.