I predict a day, perhaps twenty years from now, when you will go to the store to pick up a pound of sugar, or a box of Twinkies, or a tube of chocolate chip cookie dough. These products will be kept in a walled off area of the store, inaccessible to those under eighteen. Each product will have on the package a familiar looking message similar to this:
Warning: the Surgeon General has determined that the sugar in this product is a drug, may shorten your lifespan and may give you cancer.
Admit it, you were stuffing your face with M&M’s as you read this. If so, you are not alone. Americans, and increasingly the world at large, are sugar addicts. What’s new is that research is showing that sugar is addictive and can cause cancer. Naturally, you won’t be hearing any of this from the sugar industry. The Sugar Association assures us that sugar is sweet by nature and thus by implication wholly benign.
Hate to tell you this, Sugar Association, but tobacco is also a hundred percent natural, as are fermented beverages and for that matter uranium, ozone and ultraviolet radiation. Unlike a cigarette, eating a package of Ho-Hos won’t have people around you rushing for the exit. Smoking one cigarette won’t kill you. Eating one Oreo cookie a day probably won’t make you obese either, and your liver and pancreas will take it in stride. But just as smoking one cigarette a day is likely to have you smoking a pack a day before long, one Oreo will probably have you reaching for another. Unsurprising, this is because Oreos taste good. More specifically, the Oreo will make you feel briefly like Popeye. You will feel full of energy until, shortly thereafter, your sugar high abruptly crashes, which is when you will likely find yourself hoofing it to the vending machine for some more crack, er, sugar.
Most Americans who have looked around them would not have too much trouble believing that sugar and sugar-based products are contributing to obesity and the complications that come with it: principally diabetes and heart disease. But most would probably argue that I am going too far by calling sugar a drug and highly addictive. They will argue that even if it is addictive, it’s not a drug because it doesn’t really do anything bad to you, at least not right away. And you can always stop. If you do stop then you won’t feel its craving, at least not the way an alcoholic feels the craving for a drink or an ex-smoker feels the lure of nicotine.
Most likely your own experience belies this. There is a reason most diets do not succeed in the long run. It is because we crave what we cannot have, principally sugar and the sugar high we get from it. Moreover, we grew up thinking there was nothing wrong with sugar. It held no social stigma. That certainly happened to me. We got our dose of sugar daily during dessert, after my mother made sure we had eaten all our healthy food. I grew to anticipate dessert (usually yellow cakes with chocolate frosting, because it was my father’s favorite) the same way a dog anticipates his daily can of Alpo. Yes, I am a sugar addict too. Only now though am I realizing that sugar is basically a drug.
This suspicion gained more credence with the referenced New York Times article that my brother forwarded to me. Doubtless if it gets any traction the Sugar Association will be all over it. Unsurprisingly, Republicans want nothing to interfere with our sugar addiction. Among other things, they want to repeal mandates that restaurants of a certain size publish the calorie and fat content on its menus, one of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. Informed consent equates to Big Brother-ism and is anti-freedom, or something like that.
Nevertheless, you should read the New York Times article and ponder its implications for you and your family. I cannot say that I like them, but our obesity epidemic is hardly news. Only a fool would not agree that sugar is a major contributor to the problem. What the article makes clear though is the effect of sugar, not just on our weight, but the profound physical changes it makes to organs that you cannot live without, like your liver and pancreas. The article talks about native Inuits, who traditionally did not have sugar in their diet and now do, and now suffer from maladies like breast cancer that were previously virtually unknown. The effect of sugars on the pancreas is well known: pancreatic fatigue occurs, as the pancreas simply cannot generate enough insulin to keep up with the intake of sugar. This of course leads to adult diabetes. The effects of the bad kinds of sugar (principally fructose-based products, but really anything that is not glucose) on the liver are less well known. And like with giving up smoking, by simply removing sugar from your diet these problems can largely go away.
This is an easy solution, of course, but hard to do in practice. Why? Because sugary products are addictive, just like cigarettes, boozes and various other vices are. Yet there is insufficient political will to elevate it to the status of an addictive drug. The evidence suggests that younger generations of Americans will live shorter lives than their elders. How can this be if they are smoking and drinking less than their elders? It’s largely a result of the consumption of sugar, and the many problems that it brings, all of which are preventable.
Perhaps it is fitting that America is the epicenter of the obesity crisis. Since we value freedom most of all, this gives us the freedom to indulge, and we do more and more. Sugar is an easy indulgence because it is so cheap and because we won’t declare it dangerous and unhealthy, which it clearly is. Instead, we discuss it around the edges. We’ll let Michele Obama build a garden at the White House. There is nothing wrong with daily doses of nutritious vegetables and regular exercise, but the unstated and real cause of obesity is our sugary junk food addiction.
I’m not sure what the best approach to deal with this problem is. I’ll leave that to scientists. But my suspicion as a sugar addict is a zero tolerance policy is probably what I really need. Which means no sugar based products at all. No breakfast rolls. No more of my beloved Dark Chocolate M&Ms. No more desserts ever, unless they are sugar free. It’s not about just eliminating high fructose corn syrup from my diet. The article makes clear that table sugar is no less unhealthy. That’s where I would like to go. I hope I can summon the will to do so. I may need a physician’s help to get there.
We might be able to reduce the problem by taxing sugar and sugar-based products the way we tax booze and cigarettes, as well as ending any sugar subsidies. Yes, there would be lots of howling, but we would also end up with a healthier populace.
Americans still believe in free lunches. Sadly, this is more evidence that there are none. We have bodies optimized for hunting and gathering, not for sitting all day and consuming large quantities of additive substances. We can live shorter and unhealthier lives by keeping doing what we are doing, or we can start eating like humans should instead.