The Sugar Dilemma

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To lower my too-high cholesterol, I’ve been focused on eating low-fat, low cholesterol foods and getting more fiber.  And trying (relatively unsuccessfully) to exercise near-daily.

Apparently, that’s not enough.  Apparently the fact that I’m a sugar junkie is a real cholesterol problem.

Sigh.

I learned this from Gary Taubes’ extremely well researched (and scary) article in the New York Times entitled, “Is Sugar Toxic?”  In a nutshell, the premise is that sugar does far more than cause weight gain/obesity and diabetes…that sugar itself is a toxin, when eaten (at typical American levels) over time because it causes metabolic syndrome, which is major risk factor for heart disease.

His premise is based on research from multiple sources, one of whom is Robert Lustig, who was the topic of the opening paragraph of Taubes article:

“On May 26, 2009, Robert Lustig gave a lecture called “Sugar, The Bitter Truth,” which was posted on YouTube the following July. Since then, it has been viewed well over 800,000 times, gaining new viewers at a rate of about 50,000 per month, fairly remarkable numbers for a 90-minute discussion of the nuances of fructose biochemistry and human physiology.”

The YouTube link is included (as of today, there were nearly 1.4mm views) but since 90 minutes is far too long for my blog-oriented learning style, I read on.   Taubes explains:

“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.”

Why?  What’s so bad about sugar?  If you read this excellent (and long) article, you’ll find out that sugar is metabolized completely differently than starch – and that when you drink or eat a lot of sugar (in any form), the liver has to go into overdrive to process it, and that leads to insulin resistance and/or ‘metabolic syndrome.’

But wait – isn’t insulin resistance diabetes?  What’s that got to do with high cholesterol and heart disease?

Turns out – everything.

“…Physicians and medical authorities came to accept the idea that a condition known as metabolic syndrome is a major, if not the major, risk factor for heart disease and diabetes…

Having metabolic syndrome is another way of saying that the cells in your body are actively ignoring the action of the hormone insulin — a condition known technically as being insulin-resistant… insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome still get remarkably little attention in the press (certainly compared with cholesterol).
Not everyone with insulin resistance becomes diabetic…But having chronically elevated insulin levels has harmful effects of its own — heart disease, for one. A result is higher triglyceride levels and blood pressure, lower levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good cholesterol”), further worsening the insulin resistance — this is metabolic syndrome.”  (bold is mine)

And this is the heart of the matter for me (pun intended).  My last cholesterol test showed an increase in triglycerides AND a lower levels of HDL good cholesterol.  Which makes me worried I either have or am headed toward metabolic syndrome.

Personally, I much preferred the conventional wisdom:

“The conventional wisdom has long been that the worst that can be said about sugars of any kind is that they cause tooth decay and represent “empty calories” that we eat in excess because they taste so good.”

But I fear I can no longer pretend that my sugar addiction is OK (yes, you know about Phish Food ice cream …but there’s also cake and cookies on a regular basis as well).

Lustig’s argument, however, is not about the consumption of empty calories — and biochemists have made the same case previously, though not so publicly. It is that sugar has unique characteristics, specifically in the way the human body metabolizes the fructose in it, that may make it singularly harmful, at least if consumed in sufficient quantities.

So here’s my question:  I do not drink soda (happily, I dislike it).  I don’t drink juice (I take my vodka straight, thank you).  But I do eat ice cream, cake and cookies.  Not a ton, just a little every day.  Do I now need to cut those out as well?  Or is just a little – just a cookie or two every day – is that OK?

And don’t even mention my red wine.  Just don’t.

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