The fitness industry, like any other, spits out trends at a phenomenal rate. Food Gurus, paradoxically, seem to find the ultimate diet to trump all others every few years. They make outlandish claims about what’s currently trending, nutritionally speaking, and when counter evidence is presented to them they seem completely resilient to the opprobrium. They move on, plant a flag somewhere else and, without compunction, make some more money spinning the same story. So then the question becomes; where do we get our information from? How can we tell the difference between a credible source and perfidious charlatan? The answer, unfortunately, is that the onus lies with you. Like it or not you are now part of an information age unlike any before it. The information bubble has popped and we are adrift in its entrails. As we float in this sea of information, we can use many devices to extract what we want yet the methods of filtering we normally use seem to be redundant. There are, however, methods out there which are both readily accessible and consistently reliable (tautology, so what?!). You now have a responsibility to implement these before promulgating information.
I have decided then to turn my, unforgiving, eye towards the current demonization of sugar. It’s important to note that demonization is often justified so it pays to look into these things — an informed decision is rarely regretted so, let’s get informed!
So firstly, what is sugar? Sugar is a form of carbohydrate which is broken down very quickly by the body. Sugar takes many forms however the ones we are most familiar with are sucrose (table sugar), fructose (sugar in fruit), lactose (sugar in milk), and glucose (what carbohydrates are broken down into). Glucose is the only fuel source which brain cells can use — so the notion that we don’t need carbohydrates can be dispelled immediately. Sugar is now facing the obloquy and it has become quite fashionable to finger it for the current obesity crisis facing the western world.
So let’s do away with some popular misapprehensions surrounding sugar and see if we can’t get our heads above water with what is true and what isn’t.
Claim – Sugar Makes You Hyper
We have all been there with our kids, they’ve returned home from a party jacked up on cake, chocolate, and aptly prepared to give you a mental breakdown! “Too much damn sugar at that party!” Tends to be our complaint! Unfortunately, as great as it would be to have an out like this, science has shown time and time again that the link between sugar and our kid’s hyper-activity simply does not exist. The brain uses glucose as an energy source and thus it seemed logical to link sugar intake with increased cognitive activity; there have been some studies which show that cognitive ability may be increased by consuming sugar however even these findings have not been demonstrated effectively. Take this quote from a review which looked at the literature regarding the link between sugar and children’s behaviour and cognitive abilities…
“The meta-analytic synthesis of the studies to date found that sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children. The strong belief of parents may be due to expectancy and common association.”
There was also a brilliant study analysing children and parents, in which the parents were told their children had been given either a placebo or actual sugar. In actuality neither groups had sugar and both were given a placebo. The mothers who believed their children had been given sugar actually reported that their children were significantly more hyperactive! This demonstrated that our biases are playing too much of a roll, we are expecting our children to be more hyper and therefore we perceive them to be such.
Claim – Sugar is toxic and addictive!
Facebook is notoriously good at proliferating absurdities and it — again — has a part to play in the propagation of the notion that sugar has addictive properties. Social media’s role in the alarmism that surrounds many of the topics today cannot be overstated. Articles which allude to sugar being addictive are everywhere these days and, to this end, it’s important for me to firstly make some distinctions. There is a spectrum here which, at one end, people use hyperbolic titles to get clicks and, at the other, flat out asserts that sugar is as addictive as cocaine. I am addressing the harmful end of this spectrum. This all comes from a study on lab rats which demonstrated sugar had addictive properties BUT this cannot be extrapolated to humans. There is a large body of evidence contravening this claim which has shown that — in humans — sugar is NOT addictive. The review concluded…
“To conclude, the society as a whole should be aware of the differences between addiction in the context of substance use versus an addictive behavior. As we pointed out in this review, there is very little evidence to indicate that humans can develop a “Glucose/Sucrose/Fructose Use Disorder.”
Humans do however develop eating disorders and these people typically tend to have unhealthy relationships with high calorie, low nutrient foods. As for toxicity, anything can be toxic given that we consume enough of it and sugar is no different — studies have shown this again and again. Obscurantism like this can be extremely misleading to the general public. Take this quote from a study reviewing the literature…
“There is no evidence, however, that fructose is the sole, or even the main factor in the development of these diseases, nor that it is deleterious to everybody, and public health initiatives should therefore broadly focus on the promotion of healthy lifestyles generally. “
Claim – High Fat Low Carb is best, sugar is the enemy!
There is, indeed, the notion that there is one diet which surpasses all others! One which its proponents claim is how humans were meant to eat. There tends to be a lot of zealotry with in the low carb community and you will regularly here utterances such as “the ultimate diet” espoused by proponents of ketogenic and low carb diets, in fact, the topic has been the source of many of my posts. There is quite a bit of literature to support this claim too and that, I think, is one of the reasons this trend has taken off. The problem is that with literature we need to learn, not just to look at conclusions drawn, but also at the limitations with the research, and what you will find is that most of the literature which supports low carb diets don’t control for some very fundamental variants… calories and protein. You see, what we find when we compare diets in which calories and protein are equated is that there is no difference! Here a very recent review of the literature concludes…
“A wide range of dietary approaches (low-fat to low-carbohydrate/ketogenic, and all points between) can be similarly effective for improving body composition, and this allows flexibility with program design. To date, no controlled, inpatient isocaloric diet comparison where protein is matched between groups has reported a clinically meaningful fat loss or thermic advantage to the lower-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet. “
Thus we know that —fundamentally — our calorie and protein intake are of the utmost importance. Excess calories, be it from sugar or fat, will lead to obesity.
Claim – Sugar Causes Diabetes
Diabetes is a condition which causes a persons blood sugar to become too high. There are two kinds of diabetes, type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the cells which produce insulin. Type two diabetes develops when the body becomes resistant to insulin or when the pancreas stops producing insulin. The root cause of type 2 diabetes is generally unknown however what we do know is that there are some major contributing factors, most notable is weight gain! This 2018 overview lists the risk factors as follows…
- Being overweight and not getting enough exercise.
- Low fibre, high fat, sugary diet.
- Medication which affect the body sugar metabolism.
- Genetic factors.
What is the common denominator when looking at these lifestyle factors? Overweight, Little exercise, low fibre, high fat, sugary foods. All these things lead to a negative energy balance i.e. you’re taking in more calories than you need! That said there are a number of factors which need to be addressed as stated in this consensus statement. It does however go on to say…
“Most patients with type 2 diabetes are obese, and the global epidemic of obesity largely explains the dramatic increase in the incidence and prevalence of type 2 diabetes over the past 20 years.”
And then follows with…
“However, the precise mechanisms linking the two conditions remain unclear, as does our understanding of interindividual differences. Improved understanding will help advance identification and development of effective treatment options.”
This shows that whilst there is a prevalent link between lifestyle and type two diabetes we simply do not know the specifics of that link as of yet and to attribute it to sugar would be specious. The best advise to give someone is to get their weight under control and exercise as often as possible.
So in conclusion. There is nothing inherently bad with sugar, problems arise when we eat beyond what we need — when we are in a surplus of calories. There is a hierarchy of importance which we should appeal to when addressing these things and at the top of this hierarchy is total number of macronutrients by the end of the day. Fundamentally, if we manage our calories correctly, eat enough protein and plenty of fibre, most of the hard work is done. Sugars only really become a concern when we go into a surplus of calories. Peace!
Written by Aidan Doherty
If the title confuses you, or worse still offends you, then I implore you to read calmly and objectively. As the western political pendulum caroms between left and right, regression and dogma, and emotive arguments vs skewed arguments, I see the preliminary symptoms of such behaviour creep surreptitiously into the fitness domain. What is amazing to me is that for most of these issues the answer seems so simple — honest and open discourse about the facts. Facts are paramount here, we must address them in their entirety if we are to progress.
So before I put my point across I feel I should clarify some things, lest I be misunderstood. Firstly — kindness is beautiful and useful! I am extremely proud to live in society in which kindness is an extremely important component in our system’s operation. Compassion and kindness are two values which most of our populace would have instilled systemically and would give priority to, and rightly so. If you doubt our societies commitment to kindness and human flourishing go to the middle east or North Korea and see what it looks like when human life is undervalued. Perouse the history books and read how communist states had to remind it’s citizens that eating their children was a crime. This is only what has happened in the last century, as you go further into the past the rate and severity of suffering and violence increases almost exponentially. The empirical evidence, which shows we live in the best of all possible times by any meaningful metric, is overwhelmingly clear.
That being said, being kind is often not the most compassionate thing to do. The best analogy I can give to demonstrate this comes by way of how we treat and teach our children. Take this situation in which your child has been brought home by two police officers for shop lifting. The kind thing to do here is to forgive your child and welcome him/her back into your house with no repercussions — solve the problem with love! However, we all know that is the most uncompassionate thing you can do for your child. This will teach them absolutely nothing about right from wrong and will instead socially encumber them indefinitely. What kind of parent cares so little for their child that they would not punish him/her when they needed to be punished. Through this act of unkindness [punishment] we teach our children social values such as how to act so that everyone — including them — has the best possible experience in life.
I see an analogous situation to the “solve the problem with love” method happening within the media. Positive body image, which has been demonstrated to be effective in the treatment of eating disorders, has some how been extrapolated to glorifying obesity. As plus sized models took to the street to protest at a fashion event recently I couldn’t help be overwhelmed by the hypocrisy in their protest. Just as the fashion show was glorifying the skinny models, here the protesters were, glorifying obese ones.
Eating disorders encompass both under-eating and over-eating, and pretending either side of this is virtuous — is harmful.
This should not be a controversial thing to say given that obesity has been causally linked to over 50 diseases. This means that there are over 50 diseases which we can significantly reduce our risk of getting, given that we address the problem of obesity. Pretending that we are being progressive by glorifying obese people is an abhorrent trend which is just as harmful as the unrealistic body standards set within the media today. A study addressing the prevalence of obesity describes the problem as follows…
“Excess bodyweight is the sixth most important risk factor contributing to the overall burden of disease worldwide. 1.1 billion adults and 10% of children are now classified as overweight or obese. Average life expectancy is already diminished; the main adverse consequences are cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and several cancers.”
Another study outlines the economic cost that obesity will have, given that it continues along the same crescendo as it has been…
“The combined medical costs associated with treatment of these preventable diseases are estimated to increase by $48–66 billion/year in the USA and by £1·9–2 billion/year in the UK by 2030. Hence, effective policies to promote healthier weight also have economic benefits.”
When we go to the doctors and he discerns our health problems are causally linked to obesity, it would be unethical of him to advise you to simply “be happy in your skin.” The fact that obesity is already a huge problem within our society needs to be addressed and glorifying it under the guise of progressive values is harmful. All this movement does is make obese people feel better as they hurdle toward a completely preventable death.
To clarify here, I’m not proposing a reduction in kindness or to be more callous towards the obese, I’m simply purporting that kindness can be misplaced and sometimes rational compassion is what is needed. I am well aware of the causal link between poor mental health and binge eating disorder (BED) and I am not negating the severity of the struggle which some people deal with day to day. However, please step back and realise that pretending that there is nothing wrong with being obese is extremely harmful to the people who hear this message.
This is different from body shaming! As someone who actively works towards counteracting the societal problem of obesity I can tell you that making obesity a part of your identity is not a good thing — this is, inevitably, what this movement will lead to. The glorification of obesity is the antithesis of everything I promote and work toward, and devalues the work which perspicacious and conscientious people do to combat this! It encourages people — woman in particular — to embrace their obesity as part of their identity and to be proud of it. I’m almost certain that this movement is done with the intention of rectitude, however I feel they have diagnosed the problem correctly, but have implemented the wrong treatment. The real problem then follows, now that people have taken on obesity as an identity it becomes offensive to talk about it honestly and here in lies the problem! This is an effective way to sweep the problem of obesity under the rug which I am unwilling to do. Whilst I absolutely see the benefits, and encourage the proliferation, of promoting a culture of positive body image, I refuse to cede conversational territory to this movement in fear of being deemed offensive.
Obesity is responsible for far more societal problems than the unrealistic standards the fashion industry sets for woman. This is not the way to instil the values of positive body image. We look at the facts, we embrace what’s been demonstrated to work, and we implement the plan which has the highest potential of success.
Written by Aidan Doherty