Tag: sugar

Gary Taubes says sugar is poison

Gary Taubes says sugar is poison

Science writer Gary Taubes has been writing columns everywhere promoting his new book The Case Against Sugar. He has written columns in The Guardian, and  The New York TImes among other places, and has been reviewed somewhat critically in The Guardian, Food Insight and The Atlantic.

Taubes’ central argument is that calories from sugar are not the only reason for obesity, but argues that sugar itself is uniquely toxic.

Taubes: “If the research community had been doing its job and not assuming since the 1920s that a calorie is a calorie, perhaps we would have found such evidence long ago.”

In a nutshell, the flaw in his argument is revealed in the above statement in the Times article. There must be more to sugar’s causing obesity than just calories, but researchers haven’t been doing their job!

And, in fact, despite Taubes’ persuasive writing, this is most of his argument. He cites no research in his articles (I have not read his actual book) or even mentions researchers who agree with him.

His thesis echoes that of Dr Robert Lustig, who makes much the same arguments in his book Fat Chance, and in the movie Fed Up but both Lustig’s and Taubes’ similar ideas have been debunked in articles, such as this one in Science Based Medicine. And Food Insight called this “blind fealty to correlation as causation.” Scientific American pointed out the fallacies in this argument in 2013.

In fact, while obesity continues to increase, sugar intake in the US actually decreased from 1999-2008, mainly because of decreased consumption of sugary soft drinks.

Taubes’ other somewhat distressing argument is that the sugar industry has been influencing research outcomes for years by sponsoring research. This suggests that not only that scientists are unethical but that the journal peer-review process itself is corrupt, and that is hard to swallow. The idea that research funding influences outcomes had been thoroughly debunked in this article by van Eenenaam, who notes that such corrupt research is a sure path to a short academic career.

He cites this PLoS One paper which reviews papers for their findings, correlating them with the source of their support. The authors suggested that papers with no declared “conflict of interest” are more likely(83%) to find that sugar sweetened beverages could be a risk for weight gain, but for those “disclosing some financial conflict of interest” 83% found that there was no such correlation.

The trouble with that paper is that there are only a few such studies: there were only 12 in the first category and 6 in the second category, and only 10/12 and 5/6 supported the author’s conclusions.

There are other reviews of sugar consumption that we need to consider. For example, Weed et al. studied reviews of health outcomes from sugar sweetene beverage (SSB) consumption, and rated the review quality using the AMSTAR review rating scheme, and found that most of them received moderately low quality scores, regardless of the conclusions of the paper. This would mean that the conclusions of these reviews are probably not entirely convincing, and basing Taubes’ sugar conspiracy theory on such weak data is not fully substantiated.

Moreover, this recent paper by Keller et al. reviews papers on sugar sweetened beverage consumption among children and adolescents, reporting that 9 reviews found a correlation between obesity and SSB consumption, while 4 did not. But that the quality scores of the reviews was low to moderate and that the two papers with highest quality scores reported discrepant (inconclusive) results.

The most important conclusion we can draw from reading Taubes’ many opinion pieces is we eat too much sugar, but that studies so far have not shown that sugar is more to blame than calories from any other source. No such research seems yet to exist.

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‘Fed Up’ movie review: it gets a lot wrong

logoLast night, the Wilton Library presented a screening of the film “Fed Up” by Laurie David which takes the view that excess sugar added to just about everything is a main cause of the  world wide obesity epidemic. The screening was followed by a discussion featuring chef Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave (and formerly of the now closed Dressing Room restaurant) and Ceci Maher of Person2Person, a local food bank and assistance organizaion, with local filmmaker Megan Smith-Harris as moderator.

The film was partly supported by the local Jesse and Betsy Fink foundation Moral Ground, and was introduced by Jesse Fink. It was directed by Stephanie Soechtig and narrated by Katie Couric.

The central thesis of the film’s scattered interviews and visuals is that of Dr Robert Lustig, who is interviewed throughout. Lustig, in his book Fat Chance presents the thesis that added sugar is the cause of all our dietary woes. The trouble is that Lustig’s views are considered outliers and have not really been scientifically tested. And the idea that sugar is “poison” is just not accurate.

The film follows three morbidly obese young teenagers who struggle with their weight quite unsuccessfully. All are clearly from fairly low income families and the film skirts the issue of class and obesity even though it is clearly part of these youngster’s problems. One of the three ends up having lap band surgery, although as the surgeon clearly notes, such surgery is really not advisable for 14 year olds, and that the potential side effects might be worse than the possible weight loss outcome.

The film shows kids eating fast food and greasy, starchy school lunches and suggests that far too many school lunch programs have contracts with fast food suppliers like McDonalds and Pizza Hut. It really doesn’t show them consuming much that is sugar laden. And in fact, it is these greasy, starchy foods which are most likely to be at the root of their obesity.

Most of the speakers interviewed in the film are writers, politicians and pseudo-scientists like Mark Hyman and Lustig. We also hear from Michael Pollan (of course), food writer Mark Bittman, and pediatrician Harvey Karp. Nutritionist Marion Nestle is one of the few credible speakers, but most of the rest are just opinionators.

The film also denigrates research in the area as having been “paid for by food companies,” which shows a pretty poor understanding of how peer-reviewed science actually is carried out and checked.

Well-intentioned and produced though this film is, it does not really talk to many actual scientists who support its thesis. And it does get a number of things wrong: notably that the current generation’s life expectancy will be lower than their parents. As noted in the review in Science-Based Medicine the CDC projects continuing increases in life expectancy.

The film also claims that more people die of obesity than starvation, but this isn’t true either as Food Insight’s review points out. The WHO claims that 2.8 million people die from overweight and obesity but Oxfam estimates that over 8 million a year die from starvation.

The film also tries to make us believe that obesity isn’t caused by just too many calories, but by the sugar itself. However, this is one of Lustig’s off-the-wall ideas that isn’t supported by science. A calorie is a calorie, and too many of them will lead to obesity: it is that simple, and that difficult.

In fact, the whole idea that sugar causes obesity is wrong. Calories cause obesity, and obesity can lead to diabetes. Sugar is not a cause, but it is definitely part of the problem.

The film also groups diet soft drinks with sugary soft drinks and fruit juices as leading to obesity because it claims that diet sodas initiate a craving for sugar. This has been discredited by any number of papers. It ain’t so and they should know it.

The depressing part of this film is that it presents no hope and no solutions. One child had lap band surgery. Another family changed their eating habits to emphasize fresh foods, which the film called “sugar detox,” and indeed all of them lost weight while they cooked that way. And they regained it when they stopped! They class/income issue is not touched on, but none of these families have a lot of money, and cooking with fresh ingredients is much more expensive, and unlikely to be supported by their budgets long term.

The film, which seems overly long when sitting on hard chairs finally concludes, offering little positive outcomes, and led to a lively panel discussion.

Chef Michel Nischan’s Wholesome Wave is now active in 30 states, helping provide nourishing fresh food to low income areas, and Ceci Maher’s Person2Person provides both food and assistant to families in the Fairfield County area. They noted that local farmers’ markets now double the value of food stamps, and that the most recent Farm Bill provides $100 million in funding to help support this program.

Overall, this is a well-meaning if disorganized film, but it offers little that is positive and gets a lot wrong.

Originally published on Examiner.com on 12/13/14