In short, not well. The first day Kelly announced she was going to forgo processed sugar I downed half a bag of chocolate chips. After all, I reasoned, they would go bad if someone didn’t eat them. I have a sweet tooth
Throughout Kelly’s sugar free experiment I continued my usual breakfast of Grape Nuts and rice milk. With neither grapes nor nuts, this cereal is little more than processed carbohydrates with a vitamin pill and 5 grams of sugar (in the form of malt syrup) per half cup serving. The rice milk contains maybe 3 grams of sugar for the amount I’m using each morning. If I go by the guidelines of the American Heart Association I shouldn’t exceed 36 grams of sugar per day.
Before Kelly began the experiment I objected that demonizing sugar is symptomatic of American diet trends that always have to have a villainous scapegoat. Look back at the past 100 years of food history and you’ll see fat, carbohydrates and protein (and, most recently, gluten) taking turns as public enemy number one. Sugar, I reasoned, was the next gluten. I’m sure the big food companies are gearing up to offer plenty of unhealthy low and no-sugar options in response to recent bad publicity. Root Simple reader Rebecca, commenting on Kelly’s anti-sugar post says,
Some colleagues of mine just recently (finally!) published a paper from a huge, ambitious study in mice, where they gave each mouse one of 25 diets containing different levels of protein, carbohydrate, and fat, and tracked feeding and lifespan. It seems to me like Americans really like to cling to stories that single out specific ingredients (see: gluten, sugar). But most foods contain a mixture of things. Evidence from the mouse study and studies in other animals suggest that many animals *jointly* regulate the intake of protein and carbohydrate, but with protein exerting a stronger effect on feelings of satiety – interestingly, the mice didn’t regulate for fat, they just ate whatever amount of fat was packaged along with the protein and carbohydrate. In tracking lifespan, they found that mice given lower-protein, high-carbohydrate diets actually had the longest lifespan and other indicators of better health compared to mice on high-protein foods. They were actually most interested in refuting the “caloric restriction” hypothesis of ageing, which ignores the type of calorie involved. But I think there are broader implications.
I watched Robert Lustig’s video six months ago, and I do think he makes some important points (plus I learned a lot about the biochemistry of intermediate metabolism from him). However…I’d still go back to this whole idea of vilifying a single ingredient. Americans are all still eating way too much processed food overall, and processed food is the larger culprit, in my book, especially because it’s cheap to add fat, carbohydrates, and salt to processed foods, but expensive to add protein.
The study Rebecca mentions is behind a pay wall but you can read the abstract here. Rebecca’s point is a good one. Human nutrition is enormously complicated and current bad health trends are not reducible to one single factor. The fact is that we have limited knowledge about all the complex interactions and feedback loops in human nutrition. This in not even to mention equally important factors such as how nutrition interacts with human customs, rituals and beliefs.
That said, processed sugar is definitely bad. I have no doubt about that. And I don’t think I need to tell the readers of this blog that processed foods as a whole are what are making us unhealthy. But as I discovered in my own life, it’s difficult to avoid sugar. It’s in everything the big food companies make.
Making time to cook from scratch and eating a diverse variety of foods looks like the only way out of the food mess we’re all in.