Fat vs. Sugar: Which is to Blame for Western Disease?
By Carolyn Suerth Hudson, RDN, LD
April 5, 2017
In Gary Taubes’ new book The Case Against Sugar, he makes compelling arguments pointing to sugar as a strong contributing factor in heart disease, obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, hypertension, even cancer. For years we have been told that fat, particularly saturated fat causes heart disease, but did the research prove it? It turns out that much of the research that resulted in that conclusion did not prove it, and the sugar industry funded pretty much all of the research. Gary Taubes isn’t the only one noticing this conflict of interest. In a recent New York Times article, the sugar industry was exposed as funding the majority of the research that cited fat as the cause of heart disease. A close look at the research does not back up the conclusion. Another significant point Gary Taubes makes is that the National Institute of Health concluded it would take over a billion dollars to test the hypothesis that dietary fat causes heart disease, so the research was never done.
One of the most fascinating chapters in The Case Against Sugar is on the tobacco industry and sugar. Did you know that flue-cured tobacco, which changes the sugar content of tobacco from 3% to 22%, is what makes it possible for smokers to inhale and become addicted to tobacco? Also shocking is that since the early 1930’s tobacco growers have been soaking tobacco leaves in sugar, maximizing how much can be inhaled and delivering even more nicotine into the lungs. We know that smoking causes lung cancer and also contributes to heart disease and the nicotine is bad for us, but what about the sugar in the tobacco? Might that also be contributing to the illnesses caused by smoking?
Let’s look at what has happened since the low-fat era began in the 1950’s. Since the low-fat craze began diabetes has increased 800%, and Taubes explains this directly coincides with the increase in sugar consumption. Even University of Minnesota researcher Ancel Keys, an American physiologist who studied the influence of diet on health and hypothesized that dietary saturated fat causes cardiovascular heart disease, was funded by the sugar industry. In hindsight, his results linking fat in our diets to heart disease was flawed, yet it influenced other researchers and health practitioners for 30 years to come. In 1984 it was (wrongly) assumed that a low-fat diet would lower cholesterol, but even the Women’s Health Initiative failed to confirm that assumption. In fact, one study found those on low-fat diets actually had a higher death rate. That certainly raises questions about the validity of low-fat diets.
Furthermore, Taubes writes that countless researchers and physicians dating back to early 1800’s suspected sugar’s connection to disease states including diabetes, heart disease and obesity. In the book The Physiology of Taste published in 1825, the author linked obesity to the consumption of bread and accelerated weight gain to the consumption of sugar. All the studies done on indigenous populations confirm that once people are exposed to a Western diet the same disease states of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity begin to rise.
As a dietitian working individually with clients and teaching nutrition classes, I have seen firsthand that when clients reduce sugar, processed foods and sweets, they are healthier. Often they are able to reverse the diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, get off their cholesterol medications and lose weight, simply by cutting out processed foods, high sugar drinks and adding healthy fat. All that said, I’m with Gary Taubes and believe sugar is the root cause of these disease states. For those interested, listen in to a recent Dishing Up Nutrition where Taubes joined us as a special guest and shared the sugar has been the prime suspect and should still be the prime suspect in our growing poor health.