Often in life, the best way to achieve something is to work at eliminating the obstacles that stand between you and your goal. Paying off debt means eliminating unnecessary spending, building a home in the woods means removing the boulders before building the foundations, and losing weight is about eliminating excess calories. This type of goal achievement through removing is known in Latin as Via Negativa, or the negative way.
For consistent fat loss, there is one thing that has to be eliminated if the diet is going to work. While there are many diets, every one of them works because processed carbohydrates are removed. The food that causes the most problems not only for weight loss, heart disease, gout, and cancer, is sugar.
The science Journalist Gary Taubes laid out the argument in his book The Case Against Sugar.
Why Sugar is a Problem
As described before, processed foods contain carbohydrates. One of the most refined carbohydrates is sugar. Sugar now comes in many forms, from the white table sugar to high fructose corn syrup. For the rest of the article, the word sugar will be used to describe all types of sugars that exist in the modern food system.
Refined sugar is relatively new in the human diet. While honey is similar, it was never found in large enough quantities to be a common year-round food. The industrial revolution 250 years ago is what allowed sugar to turn from an expensive status symbol for kings and queens into a food that we consume hundreds of pounds of per year.
The 250 years has not been enough time for humans to evolve to handle the large increases in this food. Our insulin systems are triggered to massively over-react when sugars are consumed. These insulin spikes are the main cause of obesity and the corresponding fat accumulation. It is also theorized that sugar is behind heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and gout.
Is Sugar a Food?
While we treat sugar as food, because of its super-refined nature, it might be more appropriate to call it a drug. Many other drugs are found naturally in plants. Cocaine in its natural state as a leaf gives the person a little extra energy but not much else. But through refining, the cocaine is isolated in a pure form, free of any other parts of the plant. The high of cocaine and the addiction that comes with it is based on the dose of the drug; high doses of the refined molecule overwhelm the body’s systems.
In many ways, sugar is much like cocaine. It is naturally found in the sugar cane and beet, both of which are sweet to taste, but do not cause the high insulin spike that comes with refined sugar. But through a refining process, the sugar molecule is stripped from the rest of the plant.
This concentrated form of sugar requires no digestion and passes quickly into the blood stream. The is like a tsunami for the blood stream, and to prevent the huge spike in sugar from harming the system, the body overreacts. This lowers blood sugar and makes us want another hit of sugar. This overreaction of our system helps cause an addiction to sugar.
Sugar has been proven to help with pain, creates positive thoughts and emotions, and is addictive. Our bodies become reliant on the sugar. When we don’t eat sugar, we will feel slow, lethargic, and have a headache. The good feeling associated with sugar is the reason that we have cake and ice-cream on birthdays or use it as a reward for good behavior in children. The only thing that separates sugar from a drug like cocaine is that it does have calories that our bodies can use.
Yet despite the dangers of sugar, our culture treats it as a benign food. We know it is not healthy, but we believe that it is ok with moderation. But the question has to be asked? How much is a moderate amount? In 2018 Americans consumed 152 pounds of sugar on average. In 1820, Americans consumed less than 5 pounds. And this is just the average consumption. Some people eat over 250 pounds of sugar per year, which is about a half a million calories per year.
Processed food companies have lobbied hard in Washington D.C. for over a hundred years to make sugar was not treated like a drug or tobacco. Their main argument is that a calorie is a calorie, and so enjoying sugar in moderation will not make a person fat or unhealthy if calories in are less than calories out. But as Cutting Calories has discussed, not all calories are made the same. Carbs are uniquely fattening and start a cycle of increased hunger, lower energy, and overeating. So far, sugar companies have been successful in lobbying Washington. Sugar frosted cereals advertised to kids as a healthy part of a balanced diet are an example of their lobbying success.
Sugar Expands How Much You Can Eat
In the 1950s, food companies were worried that they were reaching what they called the “max stomach share.” They believed that humans could only eat so much food, and so each company and to work hard to capture as much of that stomach share as they could. This is called a zero-sum game, where there is a limited and fixed amount of money to be had.
But in the 1970s with the invention of a modern industrial sugar made from corn called “high-fructose corn syrup” the cost to sweeten foods dropped dramatically. High-fructose corn syrup was added to every processed food. Sweetening foods means that low quality ingredients that make foods taste bitter could now be used thanks to cheap sugar. This made profit margins much bigger for companies. The companies also discovered that there did not seem to be a limit to how much processed food a person could eat or drink. It was realized through the 1980s that high-fructose corn syrup eliminated the concept of the stomach share.