Fed up on sugar hyperbole






I’m glad to report that my article, “Sugar Is Not the Enemy,” for Outside was published today. And there’s really no hiding my enthusiasm for writing for such an awesome publication. I’ve long been a fan of the magazine and website — having grown up in Utah before moving to Arizona, I’ve done my fair share of snowboarding, mountain biking, kayaking, and climbing over the years.

As the headline suggests, what the article does is offer a countering view to the latest vilification of sugar in the popular film Fed Up (and subsequent media coverage). My piece primarily focuses on the film’s failure to give proper credit to other factors involved in obesity, which include other sources of calories (e.g. fat) and, specifically, lack of physical activity. Given the benefits of exercise and all types of physical activity, it shouldn’t be too surprising that respected representatives of the nutrition science community including Dr. Jim Hill, Dr. David Katz, Dr. Roger Clemens, and Angela Lemond, would agree that the film was, in short, “sugar obsessed.”

What’s most troubling about Fed Up, however, is its blatant perpetuation of alarmism, hyperbole, and falsehoods in what should be a documentary about a serious problem in our country. Consider that the film puts on a pedestal several people (Hyman, Taubes, Lustig, Bittman?) whose faulty arguments have been called out before on this blog (see here, herehere, here, and here). I don’t touch much on these issues of the film in my Outside piece, but some of that work has been done by Marianne Smith Edge). At the same time, it’s quite unfortunate that the film launches an ad-hominem attack on David Allison, who has used good science to bring deserved attention to “white hat bias” in research, and “big advocacy’s” bias in reporting on obesity. It’s not the first time Allison has been attacked (read about these attacks here and about Allison’s latest lecture at Experimental Biology here).

There’s no arguing that regardless of whether or not uniquely toxic, added sugars do play a role in contributing to obesity. As Dr. Yoni Freedhoff has pointed out, they can serve as “proxy” for how much junk food people eat. (Or, in my case, how much of my daughter’s homemade chocolate chip cookies I eat.) Yes, excess sugar is a problem, but as sports dietitian and diabetes educator Sally Hara, of Washington, owner of Proactive Nutrition, writes, we risk “flipping” from obsessing over fat to obsessing over sugar. That’s not a solution. Yes, excess sugar is a problem, but so is excess fat, alcohol, or protein. Besides simply cooking more at home, there are really few practical solutions offered by the film, as Angela Lemond writes, particularly through use of expertise given by registered dietitian nutritionists.

An example of expertise given by Boston-area sports nutritionist and dietitian Nancy Clark. She reminds that all carbohydrates are digested down into simple sugars before being absorbed anyway. It’s just that simple sugars are absorbed more quickly, which is why they are ideal for fueling exercise, the Sports Nutrition Guidebook author says. In measured advice, Clark counsels seeking out sugar and carbs along with other nutrients whenever possible (such as in fruits and vegetables), getting quickly absorbed amounts during exercise, and simply making sure to not go over total calorie needs at the end of the day. “You lose weight not when you exercise, but while you sleep,” she explains.

Published by David Despain, MS, CFS

David is a science and health writer living on Long Island, New York. He's written for a variety of publications including Scientific American, Outside Online, the American Society for Nutrition's (ASN) Nutrition Notes Daily, and Institute of Food Technologists' (IFT) Food Technology magazine and Live! blog. He's also covered new findings reported at scientific meetings including Experimental Biology, AAAS, AOCS, CASW, Sigma Xi, IFT, and others on his personal blog "Evolving Health." David is also an active member of organizations including the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Society for Nutrition, the Institute of Food Technologists, and the National Audubon Society. David has a master's degree in human nutrition from the University of Bridgeport, and a bachelor's degree in English from University of Illinois at Springfield. He also earned his Certified Food Scientist credential from the Institute of Food Technologists.

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