The current ‘debate’ about sugar and health descended into farce last Sunday night with the broadcast of a 60 Minutes program in which it was suggested that sugar ‘is as addictive as the hardest drugs’.
The argument behind this claim rests on the supposedly similar responses in the brain to sugar and cocaine. The brain contains a reward centre that is designed encourage survival behaviours, such as eating and sex. If these things were not pleasurable humans would not eat or reproduce and the species would disappear. Foods, sugar, fat and especially the combination of sugar and fat trigger this reward centre, and so does cocaine. So, with a huge leap of faith and imagination, sugar equals cocaine.
An American neuropsychologist on the program claimed that … sugar kills way more people than any psychoactive drug – an absurd claim that simply cannot be supported scientifically. I have never seen any credible scientific study that attempted to associate sugar intake with increased risk of death. Scientists have gone to great lengths to investigate the role of dietary factors in preventable disease but sugar intake simply does not feature in their calculations. In susceptible people, the risk for tooth decay may increase with the consumption of carbohydrates i.e. added sugars, natural sugars in fruits and even breast milk, and starch. But that’s it – that’s the health risk posed by sugar. Eating sugar does not kill people.
The 60 Minutes program featured an overweight woman who reportedly lost weight when she gave up sugar. She admitted to previously binge eating and eating large amounts of ice cream and chocolate. But giving up these foods hardly amounts to giving up sugar. Any dietitian will tell you that the majority of calories in ice cream and chocolate does not come from sugar. This woman lowered her calorie intake and that is why she lost weight. In fact, lowering calorie intake below the body’s requirements is the only way to lose weight.
The neuropsychologist’s claim that sugar is addictive reminds me of a quote from George Orwell: One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man would be such a fool.