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NYT Says Sugar Is 'Toxic,' So What About Other Foods?

Olga Khazan |
April 15, 2011 | 3:50 p.m. PDT

Senior Editor

As tends to be the case with the New York Times, one of today's "most popular" stories is about food. But rather than typical NYT food darlings like quinoa and kale, this article expounds upon that much-demonized red-state staple: sugar. Specifically, Gary Taubes profiles the research of obesity expert Robert Lustig, who believes that sugar is a "toxin" and a "poison by itself" - even if one disregards the caloric aspect (which isn't particularly good, either).

It's a great read for nutri-nerds, or at least certainly worth 1/20th of your monthly free New York Times allotment. But here's the essence:

Sugar, including the old-fashioned granulated kind and the high-fructose corn syrup kind, contains both glucose and fructose. The fructose is broken down by the liver, which has to work harder as you eat more sugar. (The same isn't true for starches like potatoes or bread).

"In animals, or at least in laboratory rats and mice, it’s clear that if the fructose hits the liver in sufficient quantity and with sufficient speed, the liver will convert much of it to fat. This apparently induces a condition known as insulin resistance, which is now considered the fundamental problem in obesity, and the underlying defect in heart disease and in the type of diabetes, type 2, that is common to obese and overweight individuals. It might also be the underlying defect in many cancers."

Unfortunately, the average American consumes more than 90 pounds of sugar per year, which has led to some horrific health effects:

"In 1980, roughly one in seven Americans was obese, and almost six million were diabetic, and the obesity rates, at least, hadn’t changed significantly in the 20 years previously. By the early 2000s, when sugar consumption peaked, one in every three Americans was obese, and 14 million were diabetic"

Taubes provides a convincing argument that sugar may be the culprit for both our expanding waistlines and the precipitous decline in our public health. However, his theories are understandably a bit hard to absorb because the "this-thing-you're-eating-daily-is-actually-killing-you" routine has been the bread and butter of T.V. doctors and diet books for decades. This time, however, may be different.

For the sake of comparison, here are some of the most talked-about "toxic foods" in recent years, and why they may not be as bad as sugar, after all:

From being dismissed as evil conduits of cholesterol in the '80s, eggs have come full-circle among nutrition experts. The 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines name eggs as one of the nutrient-dense foods Americans should eat.

And the cholesterol fears? According to the U.S. guidelines, "Evidence suggests that one egg per day does not result in increased blood cholesterol levels, nor does it increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in healthy people."

Fat: Although fat has the most calories per gram of any of the three macronutrients (the other two being carbohydrates and protein), in small amounts, fats aren't as bad as their reputation. In fact, humans need to consume two types of fat, omega-3s and omega-6s, in foods like fish because our bodies can't produce them. The only type to watch out for are hydrogenated, or "trans" fats, which are found in many processed foods. They can raise cholesterol and generally don't confer any nutritional benefits.

Red Meat: This one's a bit more of a gray area. A 2009 study linked red meat to cancer and heart disease, according to Web MD. "We found the consumption of red and processed meat is associated with a modest increase in overall mortality, as well as cancer and cardiovascular mortality in both men and women," says study researcher Rashmi Sinha, PhD, a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute." 

However, with plenty of zinc, iron and protein, your lunchtime burger may still have nutritional value lurking deep within its bloody, juicy interior. The important thing, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research, is to keep it to 18 ounces per week or less.



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