New revelations that the sugar industry has funded research since the 1960s casting doubt on sugar's role in heart disease — and claiming fat was the biggest risk factor — suggest Big Sugar has been as hazardous to public health as Big Tobacco.
So say a growing number of health experts, citing new scientific research that shows sugar consumption by the average American — about 20 teaspoons daily— is driving the nation’s obesity crisis and high rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and a host of mental health problems.
“This news definitively shows how the sugar industry (“Big Sugar”) is comparable to Big Tobacco in the singularity of its goal: Keeping us addicted to their product, irrespective of the health consequences,” says Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D., one of the nation’s leading brain and cognitive scientists.
Thompson is CEO of Bright Line Eating Solutions, which specializes in sharing the psychology and neurology of sustainable weight loss and helping people achieve it.
She tells Newsmax Health the misinformation spread by the sugar industry pushed federal health recommendations to limit fat intake for decades — despite the fact that “the real culprit in a myriad of health problems, including obesity, is sugar.”
She adds that sugar changes brain chemistry in ways that are comparable to nicotine and addictive drugs, resulting in more cravings for sweets.
“What is so dangerous about sugar is that it doesn’t just impact us based on what we consume of it today, it rewires our brains to ensure that we will consume more of it tomorrow,” says Thompson.
“The intensity of the sugar our brains are processing on a daily basis is hijacking our dopamine reward system exactly the same way as drugs, and is highly addictive.”
Thompson is one of many health experts who believe most Americans need to cut back on sweets and desserts. It’s also important to cut high-carb processed foods — many of which are labeled “non-fat” or “low-fat,” but contain more sugar and carbs than full-fat foods to compensate.
In addition, consumers need to recognize that many products contain hidden sugar — including salad dressings, tomato sauce, protein bars, crackers, and baked goods.
Americans consume nearly twice as much added sugar each day (88 grams) as the World Health Organization recommends (52) — no more than 10 percent of a person’s diet.
Switching to diet sodas and sugar-free foods containing artificial sweeteners is not the answer, experts say. In fact, doing so may do more harm than good and actually increase weight gain, according to research by the University of Texas Health Science Center.
The latest revelations about the dangers of sugar emerged this month when the Journal of the American Medical Association published papers revealing that in 1965 the sugar industry paid scientists from Harvard University to downplay links between sugar and heart disease and focus instead on fat.
In an accompanying editorial, New York University professor of nutrition Marion Nestle noted the Harvard research shaped health advice and polices targeting fat — not sugar — for decades to come.
That, in turn, increased sugar levels in many packaged and processed food products. At the same time, federal dietary guidelines encouraged Americans eat lower-fat products that, in many cases, were higher in sugar and carbs.
Since 1965, the nation’s collective waistline has been expanding, with nearly one-third of Americans now considered obese and another third overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity-related healthcare costs now top $150 billion year, by some estimates.
Thompson says research shows that sugar damages the brain and changes the way the body processes hormones like insulin and leptin — the chemical that tells us that we’re full and need to move.
“The sugar in our diet is elevating insulin levels far beyond where our bodies were intended to [handle],” says Thompson, noting high levels of insulin block the brain’s ability to recognize leptin.
“Research on overweight kids has shown that their average insulin levels rise 45 percent between grade school and high school, creating a surge in Type 2 diabetes.”
Over time, a steady diet of sugar also results in brain-chemistry changes that actually lead to more sugar cravings.
By contrast, fat is not addictive and doesn’t change the brain in such negative ways. Fat is also filling and can make healthy foods more palatable.
“If you put butter and salt on broccoli, people will eat just a bit more broccoli,” she points out.
The take-home message?
Americans need to limit sugar — as well as low-fat, high-carb processed foods — and eat more healthy fats (from nuts, fish, olive oil, dairy products, and even certain cuts of meat).
Thompson says there is another lesson here: Health advice and information can come with strings attached, so it’s important to consider the sources — and financial ties — of the experts providing it.
“As I sit here, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if those [Harvard] scientists hadn’t been bought off — could we have started this conversation 50 years ago?” she muses. “Could we have saved millions of people from a demoralizing food addiction they don’t understand?
“We now know what we’re doing when we put a cigarette in our mouth and light up. But too many of us still think that a pack-a-day cookie habit is harmless. It isn’t. They knew it in 1965 — and now we know it, too.”
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