Warning: sugar is hazardous to your health (and may cause cancer)

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Cardiac care

The Thinker by Rodin

I prefer to live under the delusion that I am indestructible and can stay forever young. This is delusional as I am 53. Anyhow, just in case I might be incorrect, I have been practicing some preventative strategies. For example, I have been eating healthy and for more than thirty years, I have been getting regular vigorous aerobic exercise. I get annual physicals and endure the indignities of colonoscopies and prostate exams. I apply sunblock more or less religiously before going outside in the sun. I largely abstain from caffeine and alcohol; drugs and cigarettes go without saying.

It all worked rather well until the last few years when various hitherto unknown health issues surfaced. These included various foot and nerve ailments and, more recently, a heart condition. Surgery and physical therapy have done a lot to help my foot and nerve issues. Now I struggle with periods of light headedness and occasional episodes of shortness of breath, likely caused by my irregular heartbeat.

Alas, there is no instant cure for an irregular heartbeat, nor is a cure a given. For the last few weeks I have been taking 25mg of a beta-blocker called Metoprolol to see if it will reduce my irregular heartbeats. To find out, in a couple weeks I get to wear another twenty four hour cardiac monitor and hopefully the results will show improvement. Based on how things are going my cardiologist will probably adjust my mediations again then repeat the cardiac monitor in other few months. I am getting the feeling that I have a condition that I will have to deal with for life, and that I will be ingesting Metoprolol or something like it every day until I die. It appears my delusions of indestructibility require modern medicines unknown to our hearty pioneering forefathers. In short, I am not exactly a triumph of natural selection but rather modern medicine.

Some part of me wonders if I might actually be healthier if I weighed more. It is true my blood pressure and cholesterol levels were higher when I weighed more. However, neither did I have an irregular heartbeat. It wasn’t until I dropped twenty pounds and lowered my blood pressure that these heart issues became manifest. Nor did I have fainting spells when I weighed more, perhaps because I retained more fluid when I had more fat. My blood pressure is now predictably in the normal range, but often borders on the low range. And since I had a fainting episode that put me in the hospital, I know my blood pressure can get dangerously low. So now I am encouraged to raise my blood pressure, at least a bit. I am one of a small number of Americans who are actually encouraged to add salt to their diet to help me retain water and thus raise blood pressure. So I sit here at 35,000 feet on a flight between Denver and Washington DC sipping Bloody Mary Mix to make sure I get a generous allowance of daily sodium.

To reduce the likelihood of fainting, I have been advised that I should avoid all diuretics, which includes not only alcohol but also caffeinated products. It’s good that I have tended to follow my teetotaler of father’s example. It is likely the absence of these products kept me from fainting for the first 53 years of my life. Yet chocolate is one diuretic that so far I have chosen not to give up. I am not sure that life is worth living without regular doses of chocolate. Chocolate helps make a lot of life endurable.

Still, two hospitalizations in three weeks as a result of experiencing low blood pressure symptoms have left me wary. Three weeks ago, I nervously boarded my first airline flight since my fainting episode. Oxygen levels and air pressure in general tends to be lower at 35,000 feet. I had visions of myself gasping for breath and then passing out on the aircraft, with no way to get to a hospital if I needed one. Fortunately, this was a specious worry. Today I am flying home after a week in Denver. However, perhaps because Denver is much higher in altitude than San Antonio, I have been experiencing some worrying symptoms. The mile high city has never has before made me feel this way before in many, many other trips. I also find myself occasionally hyperventilating. Today, for example, I started hyperventilating in the shuttle I took to the airport, perhaps because the driver did not turn on the ventilation. At the airport I also found myself often breathing deeply, as I waited through two and a half hours of flight delays. I assume some combination of my new heart condition and periodic vasovagal symptoms are at work, in spite of the beta blocker that I am on.

While beta blockers are supposed to help smooth out irregular heartbeats, like all drugs they have side effects. One effect I am already noticing is that they are lowering my heart rate, which probably triggers the hyperventilation. After all if you need oxygen and your heart will not beat faster, all you can do is breathe more deeply to compensate. I also notice that when working out, I can no longer push my heart rate much above 120. This means it is harder to do intensely aerobic or anaerobic exercises. I am not sure I could sprint for more than thirty seconds while on this drug. On the other hand, beta blockers can have some positive side effects. They can reduce or eliminate social anxiety and stage fright. They can also reduce the fear/flight response. Soldiers who face combat are sometimes given beta blockers.

Hopefully these drugs are helping me. At least at 300 feet above sea level (where I spend most of my life), I have noticed a marked improvement. But apparently it will take some time to find the right combination of drugs to travel with impunity again. I find this disturbing.

My hope is that some sort of drug and exercise regime will at some point have me feeling like normal all the time again, so I can go back to believing I am indestructible, with a little chemical help. It appears that like most fifty-something adults, I will need to redefine “normal”. So like many others my age, while I make slow progression toward a healthier and more normal future, it is likely that it will be a future that will never quite be what it was.

Looks like I’m mortal, dammit.