For as long as Gary Taubes and Robert Lustig have been sounding the alarm about sugar (in general) and fructose (in particular) being the fall of Western civilization, I have been attempting to inject some much-needed perspective into the discussion. (See the bottom of the post for links to my articles dating back to 2007).
In my opinion, the black-and-white view promoted by Taubes and Lustig is counter-productive. Instead of helping people set reasonable limits on their sugar intake, they’ve got people afraid to have an apple for fear of the fructose it contains.
If you eat large quantities of sugar–say, 25% or more of your daily calories for an extended period of time–you may well experience the doomsday scenario that Taubes and Lustig depict–fatty liver, altered metabolism, increased appetite, diabetes, obesity, and reduced life expectancy. On the other hand, these effects have not been seen in people (or rats) who consume sugar in moderate quantities.
Although the New York Times invited Taubes to beat his well-worn drum for a few thousand words in his recent cover story for the New York Times Magazine, at least they also allowed Gretchen Reynolds (“Phys Ed”) equal time this week, offering another way to allay your fears about sugar and/or fructose: Move your patooty.
Exercise Mitigates Effects of Sugar
Reynolds reviews a handful of recent studies, confirming what anyone who has been paying attention has known all along: Exercise–even moderate exercise–innoculates you against most of the harmful effects of sugar consumption. In fact, fructose–that most reviled of all sugars–appears to enhance the benefits (yes, you read correctly, benefits) of ingesting sugar during or after exercise.
Fill in the Gaps
The whole thing reminds me of a really dumb game we used to play in college. The gag was that the true meaning of a Chinese fortune cookie was revealed by appending the words “in bed.” You will be wildly successful…in bed. A stranger will bring you good news…in bed. Hard work brings the desired result…in bed.
Did we ever crack ourselves up! (Hey, we were college students.)
I suggest you use a similar tactic the next time you encounter a rant about the evils of sugar. Add the words “when you eat it in excessive quantities and lead a sedentary lifestyle.” Sugar can make you fat, sick, and maybe even prematurely dead…when you eat it in excessive quantities and lead a sedentary lifestyle.
You can make yourself nuts trying to rid your diet of every trace of sugar. Or, you can change the second half of the sentence.
Fructose: The Bitter Half Truth?
Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Worse than Sugar?
Even Bad Guys Deserve a Fair Trial
Fructose: Poison, Nutrient, or Both?
Replacing HFCS with Sugar: Big Deal
Looking for the Truth on Fructose? Keep Looking
High Fructose Hysteria
Let’s Put The Latest Fructose Study In Perspective
Obese America: Is High Fructose Corn Syrup to Blame?
14 thoughts on “The Antidote to Fructose Fears”
I’m with you that fructose or other sugars — as found in nature — are not inherently evil. That said, for the millions of Americans eating the standard Western diet who are sedentary, the advice to eat less (sugar/fructose) and move more strikes me as well-meaning, but disproportionate to what’s actually going on in the food industry wrt added sugars.
So who’s being black and white here? I’m suspect Taubes (and probably Lustig) would agree with what you’ve said. I also suspect they would agree that you’re dishing out the same sort of empty, enabling advice that has landed us in the current epidemic of metabolic disease. How MUCH exercise is needed and how MUCH sugar can one safely consume? Can I knock back “only” 15% of of my calories daily in soda if I walk a couple of miles? Your advice is here is at best not at all helpful, and at worst enables continued rationalization for people with serious health problems. And no amount of exercise trumps poor dietary choices. I know (and you probably do as well) individuals who are exercise nuts and still wind up with Type 2 diabetes, raging cholesterol, clogged arteries, etc.
More useful advice would be along the lines of “just eat real food”. Almonds contain cyanide, but there’s basically no chance you’ll ever eat enough almonds to even approach toxicity. Similarly, blueberries contain fructose, but nobody is likely to eat enough blueberries to get the fructose equivalent to a 12-ounce soda. Similarly, you might want to convey how people can know (or at least get some idea) that they are eating too much sugar. Gary Taubes provides this sort of advice in his latest book, Why We Get Fat.
I’ve written extensively and specifically about exactly how much sugar is too much and how to track and reduce your intake. Here’s one installment: http://nutritiondiva.quickanddirtytips.com/how-to-reduce-your-added-sugar-intake.aspx
And in her linked article, Reynolds spells out how much exercise it takes to mitigate the effects of sugar. Sorry to make you work for it.
Finally, if you were to summarize my overall message from the last 3 years of podcasting and 6 years of blogging in four words, you couldn’t do much better than “just eat real food.” Thanks!
Hmmm, sounds as if you don’t like it when people make broad generalizations of your position based on a narrow reading. I’ll bet Taubes and Lustig feel the same way.
I know that “just eat real food” is a major part of your message, and found it disappointing that it didn’t appear anywhere in your post. I also believe it to be far and away the most relevant practical point in discussions about sugar and disease. I expect that you, Taubes, and Lustig would all agree on the “just eat real food” point, and am puzzled why you would pick a fight by characterizing their work as a “rant”.
Amen @Dave, I second your recommendation to “just eat real food”.
Highly processed foods, including refined sugars are not good for you. Simply reduce their intake in your diet and eat more raw fruits and vegetables. I don’t understand why folks need scientific charts and tables and extended paragraphs on this one.
Monica I have to take your side on this. If health professionals make nutrition statements based on what they feel will have the most impact on people’s behavior (ie. sugar is poison) and don’t tell the whole story (ie. too much sugar is poison but small amounts of sugar are ok if you exercise regularly) then they run the risk of losing credibility in the long run. Having read your blog for a year and a half (followed you here from nutritiondata) I have found that you have a very balanced and scientifically-grounded view of nutrition, as well as an emphasis on eating real food. Thanks for writing; I’ll keep reading.
I can’t tell you how much I APPRECIATE this post, Monica. I’ve read so much about sugars and their evils that, despite my very active lifestyle, I constantly beat myself up about occasionally giving in to my nagging sweet tooth. Rationally, I know I’m active enough to have an occasional treat (in moderation), but I can’t silence this nagging voice telling me I’m poisoning my body with every bite. So for that I thank you for reminding me that, in moderation, a sweet treat now and them is not the end of the world! Heck, I probably do more damage stressing over it and raising my cortisol levels than the sugar does!
I also want to tell you how much I appreciate what you do. It’s hard to put out sound nutritional advice for the masses, given that each person’s lifestyle and habits are so different, and I think you do a marvelous job. Thank you and keep up the great work!
Crystel, thanks for the kind words!
As a normal-weight, pre-diabetic female, I let my glucose meter tell me how much sugar/fructose I can have: none! Green leafy veggies and occasional small servings of berries are the extent of my carbohydrates. Anything else cranks my blood sugar way up. I find a glucose meter to be a simple, no-nonsense authority. I can choose to follow its advice or not, but I know it’s my health at stake!
Most Americans do eat an excessive amount of ADDED sugar and high fructose syrup . It’s everywhere – in numerous packaged goods such as cereals, snack bars, soda, yogurt, flavored milks, fruits juices, baked goods, breads, ketchup…and the list goes on.
Regardless of any mitigating effects such as exercise, the addition of all this sugar in food does reduce the overall healthfulness of what we consume. Yes, Lustig and Taubes have sounded the alarm – perhaps to get us to start eating real, whole foods and to start reading food labels before we purchase processed foods.
And to clarify, Lustig DID NOT recommend that we stop eating fruit. According to Lustig, “Fruit is fine, but we should think twice before drinking juice or feeding it to our kids. The FIBER in whole fruit contributes to a sense of fullness. It’s rare to see a child eat more than one orange, but it is common for kids to consume much more sugar and calories as orange juice.”
“Eating FIBER also results in less carbohydrate being absorbed in the gut, “Lustig notes. In addition, he says, “fiber consumption allows the brain to receive a satiety signal sooner than it would otherwise, so we stop eating sooner.”
From link: http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2009/06/8187/obesity-and-metabolic-syndrome-driven-fructose-sugar-diet
Monica, with all due respect, both your and nutritiondivas articles are a bit simplistic. Eat-all-the-fruit-you want can certainly not be right, especially if juices / smoothies are included. Or are you really claiming that 250g of sugar (and up to three quarterst of it effectively in fructose) can be good for you, as long you consume it in form of fruits and smoothies (250g is about 2liters)?
Also fructose and exercise: how does it help? Whilst glucose can be directly absorbed by the sceletal muscle, fructose has to go through the liver before being metabolised. I would argue that if anything the supposedly healthy post-workout jumbo smoothie that is gulped down will shock the liver with its maybe 75g of fructose equivalents that arrive there literally within minutes.
Clearly – fruit is good in moderation. But there is no free-pass, and at one (reachably low) point the problems will outweigh the benefits. Now we can argue where exactly this point is, but i’d argue it would be at 50g to maximally 100g of fructose equivapent per day.
NB: fructose equivalent = 100% pure fructose + 50% normal sugar + 55% HFCS + 90% agave sirup etc
Thor falk, with all due respect, I think you need to work on your reading skills. I can’t see how you can claim to read her writings here and on Nutrition Diva and conclude she thinks you should be eating all the fruit you want.
So whats the point of this blog post then? All Taubes was saying in his 1000 words is that too much sugar is probably bad for you (and he very clearly focused on added sugar, not the one in fruits and vegetables). So if everyone agrees here, what exactly is the “much-needed sense for perspective”?