A Spoonful of Sugar – 4 May 2016

Those following the ongoing debate about whether saturated fat is the biggest killer will know that the new baddie is actually sugar. It turns out that this debate does not go back a mere eight or nine years. It goes back to the 1970s. So how come the fact that sugar is bad news for our health has only recently been given increasing media coverage?

An article in The Guardian on 7 April 2106 tells the long story. Ian Leslie informs readers that a British professor of nutrition rang the alarm bells about sugar in 1972 in a book entitled Pure, White and Deadly. The author, John Yudkin, saw some success when the book was initially published but he was discredited thereafter by prominent nutritionists working alongside the food industry. Now, 40 years later, we finally see a sugar tax in the UK and a cap on sugar consumption recommended in the US. In the intervening years we have also seen an obesity epidemic in these countries. Might it have been avoided?

Leslie sets the historical context of the 1960s when a low fat diet was becoming the new ‘nutritional orthodoxy’. John Yudkin disagreed with this direction and argues that it was sugar, not fat, that was causing obesity, diabetes and heart disease. But by then he was a voice in the wilderness and his views were dismissed.

By the 1980s the US and UK governments had issued dietary guidelines to reduce intake of saturated fats and cholesterol. The food industry fell in line and we began to eat low fat foods. Doctors followed this advice too. Yet the two nations began to get fatter. In 1980 6% of people in the UK were obese. Now two thirds (66%) are obese or overweight. Now there is a frantic search for the culprit. Guess what gave all those low fat foods any taste? Sugar. And transfats.

In his paper, The Sugar Conspiracy, Leslie argues that nutritional scientists have buried the information – such as was published by John Yudkin . He cites another journalist, Nina Teicholz whose book The Big Fat Surprise traces the history of the argument that saturated fats cause heart disease. For decades this was the accepted truth. More recently it has come to be questioned. The UN published a paper in 2008 and the American Society for Nutrition in 2010 stating that there is no significant evidence for associating saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. An Oxford paper in 2008 showed an inverse correlation between saturated fats and cardiovascular disease. In other words, those who ate more saturated fats suffered less cardiovascular disease. Teicholz argues that back in the 60s and 70s a few powerful personalities , including Ancel Keys, a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota, drove this idea from ‘controversial theory to accepted truth.’ She suggests that they exaggerated the cause of eating a low-fat diet while attacking those, like John Yudkin, who countered that argument. Yudkin found a correlation between heart disease and sugar consumption not with fat. He found that sugar is processed in the liver where it turns to fat before entering the bloodstream. He argued further that humans have been eating fat throughout our evolution (breast milk is high in saturated fats) whereas sugar only entered the human diet 300 years ago. He proposed that it was the newcomer to our diets that was making people ill.

Yudkin’s views were rubbished by those arguing the low fat corner and his career was destroyed. More recently, Nina Teicholz published an article in the British Medical Journal outlining the inadequacy of the scientific advice on which low fat dietary guidelines were based. She has received a similarly vitriolic response from the nutritional establishment.

As we read nowadays in the press, nutritionists are struggling to understand the obesity epidemic and having a serious rethink. Sugar is becoming a major focus. To read more about this fascinating and disturbing story which affects all our health I encourage you to read this article. It is too long to detail here but it should be read. (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/apr/07/the-sugar-conspiracy-robert-lustig-john-yudkin). Leslie suggests that we get most of our nutritional advice from our doctors and from government guidelines. All well and good if those bodies are informed by good science he says. What if they are not?

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