Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sugar -the media's latest demon

Starting on Saturday March 12th the Vancouver Sun newspaper ran a six-day series of articles on sugar. It seems that everyone is hooked on this topic these days. But as I'll point out, half the story is missing. An interesting thing to note is that these articles were all written by journalist/reporters of the paper - no dietician, no nutritionist. In general most of the information was correct but they did leave out what I consider the relevant stuff - the inside scoop -  what goes on at the molecular level of the body. Looking at sugar from the  lens of sociology is fine but it does not get to the crux of the matter - how to conquer the demon, sugar.

The first article ("Sugar: The new pariah") by Randy Shore begins the series by looking at statistics that confirm the high cost of obesity ($30 billion in Canada in health cost and lost productivity) and equates it with the high consumption of sugar in the form of pop - the average Canadian consumes 24 kg. of sugar & 36 two-litre bottles of pop a year. Shore points out that, although sugar consumption has deceased from 33 kilos a year per person (1960s) to the current 24 kilos, 90% of of sugar consumption comes in packaged processed foods - Shore seems to hint that processed sugar is bad but the traditional "home" cooking with sugar makes it good. Sugar is sugar.

Shore points out that the data from Statistics Canada does not include high fructose corn syrup -after the introduction of HFCS in the 1980s consumption rose to 96 litres a year (2001) but has dropped to 72 litres per year yet obesity levels in the last ten years has increased. Why? According to Shore, the problem is not sugar!!!! It is "our relationships with food and with each other." Uhh? Shore is supported on this by Sheila Innis, director of nutrition and metabolism research program at the University of British Columbia. The point here is that the makers of processed food have eliminated fat from products, due to pressure from a fat-phobic society and replaced it with sugar for flavour. Hence, the major portion of sugar is not from home but from packages - the consumption of sugar has been taken away from our control. But Innis refused to point at one specific factor to account for the obesity epidemic - to her it is "a good energy source" and "has a lot going for it." But if it is a good energy source what's wrong with it? And if obesity is equated with couch potatoes, then why are the couch potatoes just sitting there? Wouldn't they jump up from the couch and run because they are energized? Sugar is energy. Why are the obese so sluggish? Innis claims sugars are a good source of energy. Clearly, the biological explanation of the sapping of energy by high consumption of sugar is missing here or it is not understood. What Shore or Innis do not understand is that obesity is a disease of the mis-management of energy - we become tired and lack energy because that energy source (glucose)  derived from carbohydrates is stored as fat. We do not get fat because we are not active, we are not active because we are fat - over consumption of  sugar depletes us of our energy - it gets stored as fat.

Shore continues on to say that sugar in the form of pop and snacks offer calories without the nutrition. For Shore, sugar at "home" is better because, at least, it is used to make nutritious food. Umm. This is like saying that a criminal is not so bad if he robs a rich guy rather than a poor guy. Sugar is good if you eat it with  a home-cooked pie but not when the pie is bought at the super market. Shore ignores the biological fact that any sugar stimulates the production of insulin no matter where it comes from. Innis explains that the body handles sugar differently if eaten with protein and fat. So what! The article started by lamenting that the over-consumption of sugars as being associated with the current epidemic of obesity - wouldn't avoiding it at home lead toward a solution? It really doesn't matter if sugar is consumed with or without protein and fat.

Shore finishes off his article by asking whether sugar is addictive or not. Why do we crave the "rush that sugar gives us?" Shore refers to a psychological theory that sugar fills a void in our life - "we eat out of a sense of meaning" according to Bruce Alexander, professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University. Alexander suggests that food makes us bond as a family as a society - those addicted to sugar are not connected to society. It is funny how the article trails off on this note and yet does not get to the crux of the matter - unstable glucose in the blood is the catalyst of that craving. Putting things in our body is not like putting on clothes; molecules and hormones are activated.

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