The food industry is out to get you, led by producers of all things sweet. After decades of labeling fats as public enemy number one, studies have suggested that sugar is even worse. How did sugar manage, up to now, to avoid the spotlight as the major reason for the obesity epidemic facing our country?
Here's the simple answer: Sugar tastes good, advertising is everywhere, and we have been trained since childhood to love sugary things.
But medical science, too, bears its share of the blame.
In the late 1970's, new dietary recommendations swept the country suggesting that cholesterol and fat were bad and should be eliminated from food products. This began one of the biggest dietary revolutions in history, the introduction of low fat food products that replaced fat calories with sugar and its close relative, corn syrup. Processed foods became increasingly popular, and frequently contained almost no fiber.
Little did we know that we were exchanging one kind of harm for another that was much worse. The body treats calories from sugars differently; it is much harder to burn them off by exercising than calories from other sources, and this make us fatter.
Here is how it happens. When your body absorbs sugar in your intestine, it is quickly gobbled up by fat particles called triglycerides, and increasing levels of insulin (a hormone that your body excretes in response to sugar) are needed for the body to process the sugar. And white flours like bread, bagels, and processed foods that we fill our pantries with are all simple carbs that raise blood sugar in the same way as the sweet stuff does.
Sugar activates centers in our brains that need to be satisfied, and the only way that can happens is to eat more sweet things. It truly is an addiction. The parallels to smoking cigarettes, and even cocaine abuse, are eerily similar. Within weeks of beginning to smoke cigarettes or using cocaine, there are irreversible changes that occur in our brains that make it a terribly hard habit to break. Everyone knows that cigarette smoking leads to lung cancer, and cocaine can quickly kill you, but we as a society have been reluctant to demonize sugar the same way.
It is important to remember that cholesterol and saturated fats lead to heart disease, and substituting foods like red meat, cheese, and liver, which are laden with saturated fats, is not the answer. But, all fats are not the same. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are actually protective of the heart. Foods that contain healthy fats include many kinds of nuts, olive and flax seed oil, and fish, especially the oily fishes like salmon.
To lose weight, focus on sugar, and how to remove it from your diet. Here are 10 practical tips that you can use to begin this process:
- Eliminate sodas, and other sweetened beverages from your diet. A can of soda has 10 teaspoons of sugar in it. Fruit juice has just as much sugar; stick with whole fruit, as its fiber allows the sugar to be absorbed in a different way.
- Begin following the Mediterranean diet, rich in poly and monounsaturated fats, and fiber, and very low in sugar.
- Artificial sweeteners stimulate the centers in our brain that crave sugar and make us hungry. Water remains the best drink – add a touch of fresh fruit juice if you need the flavor.
- Watch the documentary called "Fed Up" from 2014, narrated by Katie Couric, which explores the growing childhood obesity problem in our country, and around the world, and makes a powerful case that sugar is the primary villain.
- Beware of hidden sugar. A Nature Valley Granola bar contains the equivalent of seven teaspoons of sugar in one package. Many breakfast cereals, smoothies, and salad dressings that we often think of as healthy are loaded with sugar.
- Watch and read "A month to change your heart" on philly.com, which also add exercise tips and stress reducing techniques to dietary tips.
- Make desserts an occasional treat: they make up 14 percent of the sugar in our diet, dairy products like ice cream account for six percent, and candy shares another six percent of the blame.
- Look for hidden code words for sugar on food labels. These include fructose, corn sweetener or syrup, dehydrated cane juice, dextrose, maple syrup, and honey. Words that end in "ose" or "ol" are usually code names for hidden sweeteners
- If you want an occasional egg instead of a carb-laden breakfast, go for it. Yolks are high in cholesterol if that's a concern, but eggs won't make you fat
- Try a sugar "purge" from your diet for a few weeks. You will like what you see.
David Becker, M.D., is a runner and a board-certified cardiologist with Chestnut Hill Temple Cardiology in Flourtown, Pa. He has been in practice for 25 years.