“We have an epidemic of obesity among six-month-olds,” said pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig, MD, at the start of his lecture, Sugar: The Bitter Truth, which went viral shortly after it was posted on YouTube in 2009.
Lustig's 90-minute presentation – now past one million YouTube viewers two years later – is full of horrifying statistics.
Here are a few more shockers: Obesity in children has tripled over the last 30 years; the average American adult consumes 141 pounds of sugar every year, and weighs 25 pounds more than he or she did 25 years ago; 25 percent of adolescents get 30 percent or more of their caloric intake from sugar.
Lustig says out-of-control sugar consumption has become as vicious a killer as cigarettes or alcohol.
When Lustig says “sugar,” he is referring to both sucrose, natural and refined, and high-fructose corn syrup.
Over-consumption of sugar leads to insulin resistance, which leads to chronic disease. Currently, roughly one in three Americans is obese, up from one in eight just 30 years ago.
Today, Lustig said, adolescent boys are consuming 275 more calories a day than in years past; adult men 187; and adult women a whopping 335.
And while he, like most scientists, cautions to not extrapolate from laboratory rat results, human studies nonetheless show that over-consumption of sugar leads to insulin resistance which leads to diseases ranging from diabetes to hypertension to cancer.
“This isn’t about demonizing any industry,” as Michelle Obama has said about her Let’s Move program to combat the epidemic of childhood obesity.
But Lustig isn't nearly so diplomatic, and in his presentation criticizes fast food, sports drink and soft drink manufacturers (as well as fruit juice manufacturers, whose products he calls “fruitades”), tracing the evolution of Coca Cola products over the last century as an example of how fast our sugar consumption has risen.
In 1915, Lustig observed, Coca Cola came in a 6.5 ounce bottle; today's bottle weighs 20 ounces. Consuming just one 20-ounce bottle of Coke per day, he said, provides the calories for a 26 pound weight gain in one year.
Sugar has made inroads into just about everything we eat, Lustig observed, from hamburger buns to barbecue sauce, ketchup and even pretzels, which is how, without knowing it, America has become a nation of “sugarholics.”
Two slices of commercial white bread, a shot of bourbon and an 8 oz. glass of orange juice each deliver the same number of calories, he said. However, the last two tax your liver more than the first one, and precipitate insulin resistance.
Lustig credits the development of high-fructose corn syrup in Japan in 1966, and its subsequent release into the American market, with accelerating Americans' health problems, for two reasons: It is cheaper than sugar, and it is sweeter.
And today, it's ubiquitous.
Name seven McDonald's food products “with no sugar“ he challenges listeners, and then proceeds to list them himself (French fries, hash browns, sausage, Diet Coke, coffee, iced tea and Chicken McNuggets,” he said, going on to caution, however, that “nobody” eats Chicken McNuggets without dipping sauce, and that dipping sauce is, of course, loaded with sugar).
Why has sugar – in any form – insinuated itself into the American diet at record levels?
Lustig has a ready answer: Because without it, “processed food, especially after they went low-fat, tastes like cardboard,” he says.
And relatively inexpensive processed food is the first component of what he has dubbed “The Perfect Storm” of low-priced food, the high-fructose corn syrup that makes it palatable and the early-1980s demonization of fats that has brought our diet to this sorry state of affairs.
Lustig takes pains to not differentiate between high-fructose corn syrup and sugar; both are added sweeteners (“the brain gets the signal that you're starving,” he explained), and both trigger overeating.
Compounding the problem, he said, is our diet's relatively low level of fiber – 12 grams a day, compared to prehistoric man's consumption of about 100 grams. “When God made the poison,” he said, referring to naturally occurring sugar in fruits and vegetables, ”he packaged it with the antidote,” fiber. He mentions sugar cane, as an example. “It's a stick,” he said, that must be sucked – and sucked and sucked – to release its sweetness. Studies of sugar plantation employees, he said, show that workers, who consumed sugar from the cane, in the field, were “healthier and lived longer than the executives,” who consumed the end-result processed sugar.
Now, with sugar consumption at an all-time high, thanks to what Lustig calls “the fructosification of America,” we are locked into “a vicious cycle of consumption and disease.”
Lustig has some simple solutions for families wanting to cut down on sugar consumption.
1) Get rid of all sodas and juices, and have only water or milk in the refrigerator.
2) Eat carbohydrates with fiber.
3) Wait 20 minutes before having a second portion.
4) Buy your screen time – in other words, exercise, in a “minute-for-minute” exchange of physical activity for television watching.
To watch his video, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM.