I am now a member of the zipper club. I know, I thought it sounded rude too. But apparently it’s the club name for those of us who have a scar right down the middle of our chest. I have one down my leg too, from groin to ankle. And as I spend time recovering from a heart bypass operation — mostly doing very little, watching the cricket, reading the paper — I have started to reflect on my condition. How did it come to this? How did the arteries of my heart become so clogged with gunk that I may have been just weeks from meeting my maker?
“Diabetic,” they said. “Pah,” I thought. I don’t feel any different. I just get up to pee a bit more at night. Some biochemical medical problem just seemed a bit too elusive, abstract, distant. I mean, when (Labour frontbencher) Diane Abbott blamed a bad interview on diabetes, who really took that seriously? Earlier this year, I was sent on a diabetes awareness day and spent the time looking out of the window, bored. They tried to explain it to me but I wasn’t concentrating.
Well, now that someone has sliced through my breastbone as they might a Christmas turkey, the whole thing doesn’t seem quite so distant. And suddenly — and unsurprisingly — I am concentrating. All ears to, and pretty evangelical about, the evils of sugar. Sorry to have doubted you, Diane.
Back in September 2016, the Journal of the American Medical Association published papers, discovered deep in the Harvard University archives, that demonstrated how the sugar industry has been manipulating research into heart disease for years. These papers revealed that the purveyors of this white poison — in behaviour straight out of the tobacco industry playbook — had been paying Harvard scientists throughout the 1960s to emphasise the link between fat and heart disease and ignore the connection with sugar. Since then, Coca-Cola has funded research into the link between sugar and obesity. And the confectionery industry has paid for research which “demonstrated” that children who eat sweets are thinner than those who don’t.
As I write, my son returns from the shops, perfectly on cue, laden with a chocolate bar, a full-fat Coke and a packet of lollipops. I want to tell him that Willy Wonka is a death-dealing drug dealer. But I bite my lip for now. He will think me a crank. Everything he likes has sugar in it. That’s my fault — he got hooked on sugary breakfast cereals as a child. As Gary Taubes explained in his remarkable book The Case Against Sugar, published last year, it has “assimilated itself into all aspects of our eating experience”. Advertisements have normalised the omnipresence of sugar as a part of a balanced diet. And my son’s brain has become accustomed to the dopamine it releases. He has become an addict. Most of us are addicts.
In 1996, 1.4 million people in the UK had diabetes. Since then the figure has trebled to over 4 million. Diabetes now gobbles up more than 10% of the NHS budget, with that percentage set to rise steeply in the coming years. The World Health Authority published a major report on global diabetes last year. Its figures show that the number of people with diabetes has gone up from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014. This is not just a matter of bad individual choices. You can’t dismiss this as the aggregate of many millions of singular decisions, each one nothing more than a matter of weakness of will and responsible for itself alone. This has become a global epidemic.
For the last 30 years I have built a pretty effective protective shell against fat-shaming. I would probably have taken losing half a stone if offered, but I wasn’t especially unhappy with my body shape. But now I see things differently. Now I see a multibillion-dollar industry that makes its profits by keeping us obese and in the dark about why. After my operation, I cut out sugar and carbohydrates as best I could. I have lost 10 kilograms in the five weeks since. And I plan to lose a lot more. It’s not a diet — I hate diets. It’s a form of protest. The scales have fallen from my eyes. Beware the candy man. — The Guardian
Review: The Case Against Sugar
By Joanna Blythman
For the last 15 years, US journalist Gary Taubes has been the self-nominated public enemy No 1 of the global “healthy eating” establishment. His heresy has been to argue powerfully and publicly that the official diet advice we have been encouraged to follow since the 1970s is fundamentally wrong. It is refined carbohydrates and sugars that we should be avoiding, he says, not fat.
His apostasy was dismissed by many health professionals in a sustained, near operatic chorus of censure. After all, he had committed the cardinal crime of suggesting that august government nutrition professors and the academic researchers who inform them had made an inexcusable error of judgement, with catastrophic consequences: an epidemic of obesity and diet-related ill-health of a magnitude that had no precedent.
Taubes’s latest book, The Case Against Sugar, looks to be less controversial, if only because so-called guardians of public health have of late subtly re-emphasised in government eating guidelines the role of sugar as a dietary villain, adopting what Taubes calls the “we knew it all along” approach. They have yet to admit that the natural saturated fats they have long demonised, such as butter, are healthier than the highly refined liquid oils and polyunsaturated margarine spreads they continue to recommend, even though the scientific inadequacy of this advice is being steadily exposed. In Taubes’s view, major nutrition authorities “have spent the last 50 years blaming dietary fat for our ills while letting sugar off the hook”.
But Taubes is like a terrier with a bone. He won’t let purveyors of this bankrupt diet paradigm get away with a bit of pragmatic sugar reduction tokenism. In order to firmly hammer the nails in the coffin of the case against sugar, he sets out to nail the lie on which it is predicated: that the tidal wave of obesity and type 2 diabetes sweeping the western world is caused by overconsumption and sedentary behaviour. This contention currently forms the bedrock of official nutrition advice worldwide. “The fundamental cause of obesity and (being) overweight is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended,” is how the World Health Organisation puts it. Custodians of public health have prescribed this “eat less/move more” doctrine for decades, to embarrassingly little effect.
Taubes shows how this “energy balance” explanation of swollen waistlines draws its apparent intellectual credibility from a myth that suits the processed food industry: “There’s no bad food, only bad diets.” Using this “balanced” diet argument, big food can persuade us that we can stay healthy while eating junk daily. This is the warped thinking that allows hospital shops to stock up with fizzy drinks and assorted sweet, starchy rubbish and heap patients’ meal trays with jelly and custard. Government diet advisers can be relied upon to faithfully promote the “everything in moderation” and “a calorie is a calorie” parables, so aiding and abetting food and drink companies’ use of sugar to lend false palatability to their nutritionally degraded products.
Taubes, however, argues that sugars are bad in and of themselves, that they have “a unique physiological, metabolic and endocrinological (hormonal) effect on our bodies”. Sugars are what an evolutionary biologist might call the environmental or dietary switch that triggers a genetic predisposition to obesity and turn an otherwise healthy diet into a harmful one. They are, says Taubes, the most likely triggers of “insulin resistance”, the condition that leads to obesity, diabetes and a number of other diseases, from gout and varicose veins to irritable bowel syndrome and asthma. “Once this process starts, easily digestible, carbohydrate-rich foods aid and abet it.”
For Taubes, sugar is at the root of all “the diseases of westernisation”, including cancer, even Alzheimer’s disease, which researchers now increasingly refer to as “type 3 diabetes”. “Put simply,” he writes “without these sugars in our diets, the cluster of related illnesses would be far less common than it is today.” — The Guardian
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