For about the first 10 years of this century, more and more Americans appeared to obey the U.S. Department Agriculture’s advice to eat less sugar.
But that trend of improvement has leveled off, according to statistics released Thursday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data show that about half of American adults drink at least one sugar-sweetened beverage daily and the average adult consumes about 150 calories from sodas or other sugary drinks each day.
That’s a big problem, says Gary Taubes, author of The Case Against Sugar. The book points to sugar to explain why two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, one in seven is diabetic and about one in five will die from cancer, Jere Downs writes for The Courier-Journal.
The book makes sugar the villain in “metabolic syndrome,” a term coined by medical researchers as early as 1987. Metabolic syndrome is the name for a group of risk factors that raises a person’s risk for heart disease and other health problems, such as diabetes and stroke, according to the National Institutes of Health. Risk factors are traits, conditions, or habits that increase the likelihood of developing a disease.
“If you are overweight with a thickening middle and especially if you are approaching middle age or older, chances are good your body is wrestling with the effects of prolonged exposure to too much sugar,” Downs notes.
The body manufactures insulin, a hormone that unlocks sugar’s energy at the cellular level, in response to consuming sugar. Insulin can be elevated in the blood for years before the onset of Type 2 diabetes, as the pancreas produces more of the hormone to cope with the excess sugar. Even if the pancreas remains strong and diabetes does not develop, elevated insulin turns up blood pressure and levels of triglycerides, Downs writes. Such disturbances create and aggravate inflammation and hardening of the arteries.
Taubes’s book, like others before it, attempts to dispel the myth that all calories are created equal, whether they come from candy bars or carrots. Straight sugar and highly refined carbohydrates, like white bread, trigger metabolic syndrome, which tells the body’s cells to hoard fat, which in turn keeps a person overweight and sick, Downs notes.
“Remove the sugar and the insulin resistance improves, and weight is lost,” Taubes told Downs.
However, there has been no definitive proof of sugar’s role in metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes, and other illnesses and it is not likely to come soon. There are only a handful of small, limited clinical trials underway exploring sugar’s direct role in metabolic disease in the U.S., Taubes told Downs. Long-term lifestyle studies are expensive and face opposition from the sugar industry and other lobbies.
As far back as 1977, some Department of Agriculture researchers were so convinced of sugar’s role in diabetes and heart disease that they called for Americans to reduce consumption by 60 percent, Downs writes. The average American today consumes 100 to 130 pounds of sugar a year; the estimates vary with the source of information.
In an effort to help combat the problem, new food labels emphasizing “added sugar” in packaged products are supposed to become mandatory on July 26. Whether the Food and Drug Administration will continue the Obama-era mandate under the new Trump administration is unclear.