Why we should have quit sugar 40 years ago
Posted April 26, 2016
Processed sugar, research increasingly suggests, makes us prematurely old, wrinkly and obese. But its position as Public Health Enemy No. 1 is relatively new, despite the warnings of a British scientist a half-century ago.
As early as 1957, Dr. John Yudkin proposed that it was not dietary fat, but sugar that posed the greatest danger to health, the British newspaper The Guardian reported earlier this month. But Yudkin's 1972 book "Pure, White, and Deadly" was largely dismissed by his peers, who were then pushing a low-fat diet as the solution to the world's health woes.
By the time Yudkin retired, "both theory and author had been marginalized and derided," wrote Ian Leslie in The Guardian. "Only now is Yudkin’s work being returned, posthumously, to the scientific mainstream."
It has found a proponent in Robert Lustig, one of today's most prominent anti-sugar crusaders, whose talk "Sugar: the Bitter Truth" has more than 6 million hits on YouTube. Ironically, Lustig had not even heard of Yudkin until about seven years ago. When he finally tracked down his work, he thought, "Holy crap. This guy got there 35 years before me," Leslie wrote.
Had Yudkin's arguments carried more weight than the anti-fat brigade, the obesity crisis might have been averted, The Guardian's report suggests.
When the U.S. issued its first dietary guidelines in 1980 (followed by Britain three years later), the government told Americans to eat less fat and cholesterol. They obeyed, and the low-fat craze began. "But instead of becoming healthier, we grew fatter and sicker," Leslie wrote.
"Look at a graph of postwar obesity rates and it becomes clear that something changed after 1980. In the U.S., the line rises very gradually until, in the early 1980s, it takes off like an aeroplane. Just 12 percent of Americans were obese in 1950, 15 percent in 1980, 35 percent by 2000," The Guardian said.
"… At best, we can conclude that the official guidelines did not achieve their objective; at worst, they led to a decades-long health catastrophe."
The U.S. dietary guidelines, which are updated every five years, have since changed, although Yudkin, who died in 1995, did not live to see his warnings surge through the mainstream. In the latest edition, issued in January, the guidelines drop previous warnings about cholesterol and urge restrictions on sugar. Added sugar — that is, sugar not found naturally in dairy or fruit — should make up less than 10 percent of our total calories, the government now says.
When we cut down on sugar, results will be quickly noticeable, one 2015 study says. Lustig and other researchers put 43 children on low-sugar diets and monitored the effects for 10 days. They found that the children's blood pressure went down and many lost weight, even though they were consuming the same number of calories.
Another study, published April 18 in Pediatrics, suggests that children who crave sugary foods are more at risk for obesity than children who prefer salty snacks.
Meanwhile, a new analysis of a four-decade-old study found that a low-fat diet did not reduce mortality, and that people with the greatest drop in cholesterol during the study were more likely to die. Somewhere, Yudkin is smiling.