In the first of my four posts on problems with the keto diet I made the point that it’s probably a mistake to label our desire for Sugar as an “addiction.” Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist whom I’ve quoted and posted from, does posit that sugar is addictive in his video #4 which I post below and have also posted on my author’s Facebook page. I’ve been doing some further reading and thinking, and, with all due respect to Dr. Lustig, I still think he’s wrong. (Notice—patting myself on the back here—that while I’ve gained excellent information and insight from Lustig, I don’t just take what he says at face value. He’s not my guru.)
Here’s the central objection that I have to saying that sugar is innately addictive:
Let me stop and define the term “sugar,” as I’m using the word in a very narrow, specific sense. I’m not using “sugar” as a synonym for “glucose,” which is the fuel that ends up in your bloodstream and feeds every cell in your body. Instead, I’m referring to any substance you can eat that’s made up of a roughly 50/50 ratio of glucose and fructose and that has the status of an “added” sugar, that is, a sugar that is not innate to a natural food or is in a food that has been processed in a way that concentrates the sugar. So a regular old apple has innate sugar (an average one containing 19 grams of sugar, or 76 calories, much of it fructose), but because that sugar is an integral part of the fruit itself we don’t count it as “added.” The sugar comes packaged with 4.4 grams of fiber, which slows down the rate of sugar absorption, and there’s a very low limit to how many apples you can eat at a time and how fast you can eat them. Make that apple (and about three and a half more of them) into 12 ounces of juice and now you have 39 grams of sugar and 156 calories from that sugar, the almost exact equivalent of the sugar and calories in a 12-oz. can of pop, and those sugar calories can be consumed very quickly. (I was curious about why the juice didn’t contain even more sugar, but I guess some of it is lost because it clings to the pulp.) More to the point, though, is that now the sugar in the juice doesn’t need to be digested but goes straight to your small intestine to be absorbed. You might as well mainline it!
Fruit juice isn’t pure sugar, though, since it contains a lot of water. The straight stuff can be found in the following:
table sugar (sucrose—the white stuff)
raw sugar (sucrose with a little of the molasses left in), including the brand name Sucanat, which is somewhere around 88%-97% sucrose as opposed to 99.9%. I’ve found a range of percentages online for that specific product.
brown sugar (same as raw sugar, so same as white sugar nutritionally)
and the liquid sweeteners:
high-fructose corn syrup
All with basically the same nutritional value—i.e., none. (Yes, honey and maple syrup have trace amounts of vitamin and minerals, but you’d have to drink a gallon of the stuff to get anything significant.)
And, finally, molasses, which is left over from the refining of sugar cane and has some other ingredients, thus causing a lower concentration of sucrose, but most people wouldn’t want to use it all the time as a general sweetener because of its strong flavor. Blackstrap molasses, once the darling of the natural-foods movement because of its supposedly high mineral content, is basically the sludge left behind after the third boiling of cane syrup into sugar. It does have some iron (although not as much as has been implied), but its flavor is intense and somewhat bitter. You don’t “eat” blackstrap molasses; you “take” it.
All of the above sweeteners (with the blackstrap exception) are fundamentally used to enhance the flavors of other foods and/or make them more palatable, not as foods in themselves, but they’re still food. They still have to get into the bloodstream via the small intestine. They don’t cross the blood-brain barrier the way, say, cocaine or nicotine do.
I believe it’s profoundly unhelpful as well as biologically incorrect to call our sugar cravings an addiction, because such a label implies that the addict can’t help himself or herself. It’s the same type of unhelpful wording that gets applied to shopping, gambling, or sex. “Addiction” is labeled as a disease, something that needs to be cured by an outside intervention. No one expects a cancer patient to cure himself by changing his behavior! (I ran across an excellent article by someone named Marc Lewis while researching this post, by the way, which deals with the whole concept of addiction as disease, something beyond my scope here. I’d recommend it highly and plan to read his book, The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease.)
What Lustig and his fellow researchers describe as “addiction” would be more accurately described as “habituation.” It’s the same concept as the “hedonic treadmill,” the idea that we stop paying attention to luxuries or treats if we indulge in them too much; they become necessities in our minds. We then need yet more luxuries or treats to stimulate our pleasure receptors to the same extent. (Start watching the first video below at minute 2:50 to see the relevant snippet.) What I would like to see but don’t in Lustig’s material is a before-and-after examination of the brains of obese people. Yes, okay, granted—an obese person’s brain is responding to food-pleasure signals in an unnatural way—but what happens to that brain when the person learns new eating habits and loses weight? I’d be willing to bet that the pleasure receptors return to normal or close to it. Whether or not the metabolic pathways of someone who’s gained and then lost 100 pounds will ever function normally is another question entirely, especially if the weight was lost too fast. (See my previous post on the topic of drastic weight loss.)
What does Lustig recommend, by the way, to cure this addictive environment where we find ourselves? He’s all for government intervention/regulation of the same kind that now governs the sale of tobacco products. Two problems exist with that view:
1. It almost certainly ain’t gonna happen. Products containing added sugar are way more ubiquitous than products containing tobacco. The entire food industry would have to be upended in order for his ideas to be implemented.
2. Even if, somewhere in the distant future, added refined sugars were banned, what are we poor schmucks supposed to do in the meantime? Well, as I’ve mentioned before, the Lustig videos include one on the new habits people need to form in their quest to eat more healthfully. In other words, we can do something about this while we wait for the Sugar-Free Millennium to arrive. What is said in that video, the second one below, is profoundly helpful and positive.
Time to stop for now. So much to say!
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