We’re not addicted to sugar. We’re addicted to the combination of sugar and fat (with a preference for fat).
In a recent webinar, Dr. John McDougall, who is not known to mince his words, said some things about sugar that might shock the prude ears of those who think that white sugar is pure poison and the main culprit for the obesity epidemic.
“I want to show you some truth, put out by industry, years ago. TRUTH. Every word in what I’m going to show you in this video is true. I’m going to explain to you why, and you’re going to go: Oh my goodness, I can’t believe it!”
Then, he goes on to play an old TV advertisement for Coca-Cola from the 1960’s featuring a slim housewife who touts the health benefits of drinking a cola.
In the clip, she says:
- “There’s no waistline worry with coke, you know.”
- “This individual size bottle has no more calories than half a grapefruit” (the bottle is the smaller, older glass bottle).
- “It’s so satisfying; it keeps me from eating something else that might really add those pounds.”
- “Coke is low in calories.”
In the rest of the video, Dr. McDougall explains why most people today think otherwise, and why in fact, these statements are indeed correct. He doesn’t recommend to drink coca-cola but confirms that:
- Sugar is appetite satisfying.
- Fat is more easily transformed into body fat.
- Excess sugar calories are not easily converted into body fat.
- Carbohydrates and sugar satisfy the hunger drive. When you eat sugar, it keeps you from eating something else that might really “add those pounds.”
He then criticizes the SOS-free movement, that in the same breath condemns salt, oil, and sugar as if they were equal.
McDougall concludes that sugar is not one of the primary concerns, as it is made out to be and that it’s okay to add a bit of white sugar on your oatmeal if your diet is otherwise healthy and low in fat.
Sugar Is Not the Root of All Evil
I more or less agree with McDougall on all of the points that he made, except for the one about sugar not being quickly transformed into body fat. In a way, he’s right to say this, but in the end, it doesn’t matter whether sugar is easily or not readily chemically converted into body fat, because it’s all a question of calories.
For example, we know that alcohol is not easily converted into body fat. However, the calories in alcohol are quick energy for the body that will be burned first. So alcohol does lead to weight gain because the foods you eat are stored into body fat more efficiently, as the body burns the alcohol first and then ends up with a surplus of energy.
However, where McDougall is right is the fact that sugar is not the villain. Americans and other nations did not get so overweight because they consume too much sugar. The obesity crisis is the result of an overabundance of what scientists call “highly palatable foods” — foods that are rich in energy, and generally contain a combination of sugar, fat, and salt. The obesity crisis is caused by consuming too many calories overall and not only sugar. Fat and oil consumption have been on the rise, just as sugar consumption is on the rise.
We overeat everything, but more specifically, we eat foods that drive our brains nuts because they are merely too concentrated in energy, containing the notorious combination of sugar, fat, and salt.
When people say they eat “too much sugar” — they’ll mention chocolate bars, ice-cream, cookies and perhaps colas. But except for cola, all of these foods contain most of their calories from fat. Without the fat, eating sugar on its own is not appealing and eventually “spoils the appetite.”
Yes, some people drink too much cola and become extremely overweight as a result. But if you analyze their diet carefully, you’ll discover that they eat too much in general (fat and sugar).
But no, it’s not because people add a teaspoon of sugar in their coffee or because they eat fruit that they become overweight and develop metabolic syndrome.
Calories From Fat and Sugar Are Not the Same
Gary Taubes is a famous example of a deluded low-carb advocate who hangs on desperately to the theory that calories from sugar (vs. fat and other sources) are somehow unique and bear all the responsibility for the obesity crisis.
Taubes claims that due to a conspiracy led by “Big Sugar,” current nutritional science is incorrect in claiming that calories are calories, no matter what the source. For him, the cause of obesity is sugar, leading to insulin spikes, leading to increased fat storage.
With Dr. Peter Attia, he founded a nutritional research institute and so far his attempts at proving his theories have been a failure.
But Taubes is not a serious researcher. He’s instead a journalist who’s earned millions of dollars for his contrarian views, and who of course advocates the typical, unimaginative low-carb diet of eggs and bacon for breakfast, tuna fish and salad for lunch and meat and vegetables for dinner. More or less, exactly what most diet books have advocated for over 150 years.
A more serious researcher is Dr. Stephan Guyenet, who’s been reviewing the medical literature for years and has been writing extensively on diet controversies on his blog.
Dr. Guyenet concludes that:
“I think it’s now relatively safe to say that in a general sense, equal calories from fat and carbohydrate have similar effects on energy expenditure and body fatness, with a possible small “metabolic advantage” for higher-carbohydrate diets. This doesn’t imply very much about the real-world effectiveness of low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets because it doesn’t factor in free-living calorie intake, but it is relevant to certain popular theories about how those diets work. The upshot is that you shouldn’t expect altering the carbohydrate-to-fat ratio of your diet to work magic on your metabolic rate, but rather you should choose a diet that controls your calorie intake effectively and sustainably.”
In other words: there’s nothing particularly evil about the calories in sugar or particularly good about calories in fat. Both are used equally well by the body and can lead to weight gain.
How Much Sugar Is Safe to Eat?
White sugar is not health food, but it’s also not the great evil it’s painted out to be. Granted, eat a lot of white sugar on top of a high-calorie diet and you’ll gain some weight.
But some refined sugar here and there is not going to hurt when you keep things in perspective.
People eat out at a Thai restaurant and worry about the one teaspoon or two of sugar in their Pad Thai, not thinking about the four or five tablespoons of vegetable oil used to stir-fry the whole thing! The sugar amounts to maybe 30-40 calories, while the oil is at least 400-500.
Some people drink colas all day to get their sugar high, but if it were not for the presence of caffeine in those drinks, they would likely be much less addicted.
Some people are more sensitive to sugar intake, reporting “blood sugar swings” whenever they eat something sweet and often experiencing the effects of low insulin sensitivity. But a very high-fat diet is often a hidden cause of lowered insulin sensitivity.