Just in Time for Halloween, Another Study Highlights the Horror of Too Much Sugar
In a stroke of timing sure to strike fear in parents, on Tuesday scientists released the results of a clinical study that raises significant alarm about the impact of too much added sugar on kids’ health, just days before the national sugar free-for-all known as Halloween.
For their ingeniously designed study, a team of researchers led by Dr. Robert Lustig at the Benioff Children’s Hospital of the University of California, San Francisco, targeted added sugars in the diets of kids ages nine to 18 who had at least one or more factors that put them at high risk for developing diabetes and related disorders. Here’s what’s key: The researchers did not try to cut the number of calories the kids consumed or even the amount of carbs. They simply replaced many of the foods the kids typically ate that contained added sugar with other types of carbohydrates, such as bagels for breakfast instead of sugar-sweetened yogurt.
The results of the short-term study, which were published in the journal Obesity, were remarkable. The 43 participants didn’t lose much, if any, weight, but on average, their levels of LDL cholesterol (so-called bad cholesterol) fell by 10 points, their diastolic blood pressure fell by 5 points, and the amount of harmful triglycerides in the blood dropped by a third. Also significantly improved were their fasting blood sugar and insulin levels, suggesting that they had substantially decreased their risk for developing diabetes.
How long did the kids have to adhere to this low-added-sugar diet to achieve these dramatic results? Just 10 days.
“This paper says we can turn a child’s metabolic health around in 10 days without changing calories and without changing weight—just by taking the added sugars out of their diet,” Lustig told The New York Times. “From a clinical standpoint, from a health care standpoint, that’s very important.”
If you’ve at all followed the growing debate over the deleterious effects of added sugar during the past several years, then it’s likely that Lustig’s name rings a bell. After all, he’s been one of the leading crusaders trying to get us to fundamentally shift our attitudes about all the copious amounts of sugar that the makers of processed foods and soda dump into their products. Lustig’s 2009 lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” has amassed nearly 6 million views on YouTube, and he was at the center of Gary Taubes’ 2011 The New York Times Magazine feature “Is Sugar Toxic?” In Lustig’s—and Taubes’—opinion, the answer is decidedly yes.
Through his work, Lustig has long maintained that the old view that a calorie is a calorie isn’t true—rather, he believes that not all calories are created equal and that the way our bodies metabolize calories from too much added sugars is one of the prime factors in the alarming rise in obesity and related illnesses during the past 30 or so years—a period when our collective sugar consumption boomed, whether in the form of supersize soda or of low-fat snacks that favored sugar over fat.
In the new study, Lustig and his team didn’t eliminate all added sugar from the kids’ diets but cut the amount of added sugar consumed by an average of about two-thirds, to no more than 10 percent of their daily calories. That's the same amount that a panel of experts has recommended should be an official part of the federal dietary guidelines, which are in the process of being revised this year.
It’s all part of what’s shaping up to be a sea change in how we think about sugar. Whether coincidence or not, the timing of the study’s release couldn’t highlight that more, as what was once seen as not much more than a harmless indulgence not so long ago—plying kids with candy—seems like it could lead to some truly scary health consequences indeed.