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If you have a sweet tooth–and want to keep it–stay away from Gary Taubes. He’s the author of the new book The Case Against Sugar, a massive exposé about the catastrophic effects sugar has on health and the ways the government has tried to cover them up. Using historical research and scientific studies, Taubes chronicles how the public got duped into believing sugar is harmless, then lays out an argument for completely eliminating sugar from your diet.
The evidence is persuasive enough to make you question your devotion to your favorite sweets–but good luck giving them up, because some studies have found sugar to be at least as addictive (if not more so) than drugs like cocaine and heroin. (More on that below.)
Before you feel completely devastated by this proclamation that sugar is evil, there is one caveat: Taubes is not a medical doctor. He’s a science writer. As he says, “Just assume every phrase I say starts with the phrase ‘If I’m right…'” If this were a legal case, he claims, he could get an indictment on sugar but wouldn’t be guaranteed a conviction. Read on and judge for yourself.
Crave: You don’t just consider sugar unhealthy. You call it a “toxic” substance. Explain why.
Gary Taubes: For decades, people have assumed that the worst you could say about sugar is it’s empty calories so you eat too much of it. I’m saying that the evidence is pretty compelling that it causes unique effects in your body that cause harm, just like a toxin does, except it takes years or decades for these effects to manifest themselves rather than weeks or months. That’s what I mean by calling sugar a “toxin”.
If sugar is so dangerous, why isn’t it being regulated?
You can’t regulate something just because we eat too much of it. The sugar industry would be the first one to tell you, “If you eat too much of anything, you’ll get fat and that’ll lead to diabetes, so it doesn’t matter whether it’s sugar or kale or quinoa or grass-fed steak.” That’s the logic.
We regulate cigarette consumption because we know it causes lung cancer and heart disease and emphysema. Alcohol is regulated because it has deleterious effects and it’s clearly a psychoactive substance, so we don’t want our kids drinking it, but even then we don’t have laws about how many beers you can drink on Friday night.
Even with cigarettes, the primary regulations came about because of the addictive nature of the cigarettes. And then the second-hand smoke issue. If you’re doing harm to the person next to you, then it gives governments and the law an opportunity to say, “You can’t do that anymore. I’m going to protect other people from your actions.”
You don’t get fat because you’re standing next to someone drinking a Coca-Cola but you could argue, and people will, that the medical cost of sugar consumption, obesity, and diabetes are so great that they harm everyone. They drive up insurance rates, they overburden hospitals, but even then you’ve got to demonstrate that there’s something special about sugar, that it’s not just the calories.
I’m not a fan of government regulation. My books have been about how the government has screwed up on other nutrition issues like the fat in our diet, so I don’t particularly like the idea.
People banter about being addicted to sugar, but there is some scientific evidence showing that it is a real thing, right?
There’s some scientific evidence, but it’s not the most compelling. There is a research group in France that did some studies, a group in Canada, one group at Princeton. They compare sugar to cocaine and heroin in animal models–you can’t give kids cocaine or heroin, get ‘em hooked and then see if sugar’s as bad, that would be unethical, so instead you do the experiments in animals–and if this French laboratory is to be believed, then sugar is more addictive, at least to rats, than cocaine and at least as addictive as heroin. Rats will prefer sugar to either of the other two.
There’s a lot of suggestive evidence that it’s a drug and should be treated as a drug, but again, we just really haven’t been studying it. We’ve been obsessed with this idea that people get fat just because they eat too much and that it’s dietary fat and saturated fat we should worry about. We’ve been giving sugar a free pass.
Is there a withdrawal period after quitting sugar?
I know people who say that they go through a kind of withdrawal, but nobody that I know has studied it and most people will never give up sugar long enough to find out. Most of the people I talk to tend to find it pretty easy to give it up as long as they’re not confronted with it. Out of sight is out of mind with sugar.
After quitting sugar, does the physical damage it has done reverse?
It probably depends on your age and the extent of damage. I was trying to work out a metaphor with a friend of mine and we decided it was similar to: Imagine if there was an epidemic of potholes on the highways and the potholes caused flat tires and people drove around on the flat tires and that caused axle damage and other damage to the cars. So the first thing you have to do is get rid of the potholes, which is the equivalent of cutting way back on sugar. And then you have to get rid of the immediate damage, which is the flat tires, but some of the cars, because they’ve been driving around on flat tires too long, have other chronic damage that might not be fixable.
In order to reverse obesity and diabetes, if it’s possible to do either one of them, you’ve got to do far more than just remove sugar from the diet. That’s where very low-carb, high-fat diets come in, like Atkins. Some people can get a lot better, or so they tell me, just by removing sugar. Some people who have been obese and diabetic for a long time will find that no amount of sugar or carbohydrate restriction will reverse the obesity and the diabetes; now they’re just stuck with the chronic effects.
What should young men know about sugar consumption?
Here’s one thing I would tell millennial males: When most of us were young, we thought we could tolerate eating virtually anything. By the time I realized I couldn’t, I was about 35, and that was probably young enough in my case to reverse virtually all of the damage. Had I realized at 20 what was going to happen at 35, I might have been a lot healthier the whole way along. But the problem is you can’t convince young people that they should worry about the future.
What would your ideal outcome be for how we look at sugar in the future?
I’d like everyone to understand what the stakes are, that this isn’t about empty calories, this is about a chemical that literally causes obesity and diabetes, that these would be very rare diseases if we hadn’t saturated our diets with sugar, and that we could all be a lot healthier. I want people to understand that it’s not something that can be exercised away, although some people can clearly do it, just like some people can smoke cigarettes for 80 years and not get lung cancer. I think people have to be armed with the right knowledge.