The Case Against Sugar

Image of The Case Against Sugar
Release Date: 
December 26, 2016
Reviewed by: 

The Case Against Sugar is not another diet book, which is precisely why it might change your life. It doesn’t tell the reader how to lose weight, but instead outlines the history and science behind the theory that increased consumption of sugar is what has made Americans overweight and sick. It’s a concept that, if it changes the way we eat, could improve the health of the nation.

The book centers around the idea that there is a causal relationship between increased sugar consumption by individuals and communities and increased rates of diabetes and other chronic health conditions. The consumption of sugars is defined as ingesting substances that end in -ose, with sucrose (sugar) and high fructose corn syrup being the main sugars consumed in the American or Western diet and responsible for our collective obesity and ill health.

Sugar consumption is not just a harmless pleasure according to the book’s author, Gary Taubes. The consumption of sugar and high fructose corn syrup has led to two-thirds of Americans being overweight or obese. This excess weight has consequences.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, “one in every seven to eight adults in this country has diabetes . . .” depending on how one defines a diabetes diagnosis. This number surges among specific populations, like veterans, to one in four who are admitted to a VA hospital for treatment. The cost, just in diabetes drugs and devices, is over thirty billion dollars a year. The cost in human terms of suffering, disability, and limited life expectancy is immeasurable.

Taubes makes clear that diabetes is rooted in increased sugar consumption and concomitant obesity. His main thesis is: “sugars like sucrose and high fructose corn syrup are fundamental causes of diabetes and obesity.” Obesity is not a simple problem of calories in/calories out. It is not a problem of fat consumption. Sugar causes diabetes. Sugar causes obesity. Sugar is dangerous to public health in more than very limited amounts.

Is sugar addictive? This is a subject Taubes addresses head-on. Sugar is a nutrient in the sense that is has calories and can help sustain life. It is also a psychoactive substance that works on the brain in ways similar to other addictive substances. Sugar craving is hardwired into the human brain. It works on the reward center of the brain in ways very similar to other drugs.

One interesting example of the relationship between sugar and the brain’s addictive potential is that when Prohibition was in full force, the nation’s consumption of candy increased dramatically. Sugar works on the brain’s reward center in ways similar to alcohol. The brain wants its rewards and will find ways to be soothed.

More unexpected evidence of the addictive nature of sugar is the way that we use “sweetness” to describe the ultimate high: love. Sweetie. Sweetheart. Sugar. Honey. Cupcake. Sweetie Pie. These are all terms of affection. Celebrations of love include sugar—cakes for birthdays, weddings, and retirement parties; and chocolate for Valentine’s Day. Thanksgiving is celebrated not just with turkey, but also with pie. Santa gets cookies. Halloween is synonymous with candy. Children get a cookie for being good.

Even those of us who don’t end the day with a stiff drink to relax, will very often sit down with a pint of ice cream and a spoon. Sugar has in some ways become synonymous with self-care, or at least a deserved luxury.

Special attention is paid in the book to the ways in which the sugar lobby has used skewed science and financial influence to continue to get sugar dumped into the American diet despite the health implications. The sugar industry has fought the correlation between sugar and dental cavities, made the argument that sugar helps us eat less, and worked to move our attention from the damage caused by sugar to that which may be caused by some sugar substitutes. This is all done in the name of profits. The argument is persuasive.

The problem of sugar over-consumption and the diseases that come with it is not found only in the United States. Taubes ends the book with a look at global sugar consumption. As nations gain increased levels of affluence, their consumption of sugar increases and they begin to see diabetes, fatty liver, obesity, and cancer rates all increase. Sugar overconsumption has also been related to gout, hypertension, and Alzheimer’s disease, the latter now being called “type 3 diabetes.”

If a criticism of the book must be made, it is that the science can become a bit tedious. There is at least a hundred pages of documentation of the ways that sugar has made its way into the American/Western diet, not just as a delightful treat, but an everyday occurrence. Though all the evidence is important, the reader is likely to be convinced of and horrified by the argument 20 or 30 pages in.

Americans must drastically reduce their sugar consumption, which will not be easy because sugar is addictive. But if we want to live healthy, vigorous lives, there is no other choice. Healthful eating is the foundation of good health. If you crave something sweet, fresh fruit is still the most healthful choice.