Guest Column: Sugar addictive and damaging, should be regulated

Michael Levy

“Substance X” acts on the addiction center of the brain, causing users’ moods to drop when they don’t have it, leading to increased use.

It contributes to a wide suite of diseases, including those of the liver and heart, along with diabetes, obesity and cancer.

It is widely available, even to children, to whom its makers and pushers market it, and its use has exploded in the last few decades.

It costs the United States tens to hundreds of billions of dollars per year in lost productivity and health care costs and damages national security.

Clearly, substance X is nasty and changes need to be made.

Substance X is sugar.

A little sugar is a great thing. Indeed, that’s why we’re evolutionarily programmed to love and even crave it. In nature, it is scarce. But, in the modern world, it is ubiquitous.

The average American now consumes 73 pounds of added sugar a year (which is an increase of 50 percent in the last 35 years), including 55 gallons of soda.

That’s not entirely the fault of all of us who have a sweet tooth. Multiple studies have shown addiction-type reactions to sugar, including dependence, tolerance and withdrawal.

But, for its delicious temptation, sugar is likely responsible for what doctors call “metabolic syndrome.” Metabolic syndrome consists of a group of health problems that tend to show up in the same people, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart and liver disease.

Many people, and researchers, have suggested the metabolic syndrome is a consequence of too many total calories and obesity, rather than just sugar, per se. But 20 percent of obese people don’t suffer from metabolic syndrome, and 40 percent of normal-weight people do, so obesity and metabolic syndrome aren’t just two sides of the same coin.

Furthermore, as industrial, western foods­—characterized by highly processed, carbohydrate-rich calories—spread around the world, the diseases of metabolic syndrome follow in their shadow.

Metabolic syndrome costs the U.S. $65 billion a year in lost productivity and another $150 billion a year in health care costs.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said obesity, which is driven by increasing sugar consumption, poses a threat to national security because a quarter of all military applicants are now rejected for being obese.

Clearly, something must be done about this scourge.

First, on the personal responsibility front, there should be a limit on sugar intake. Obvious culprits, such as soda and candy, will blow your sugar consumption through the roof, but be sure to check nutrition labels on processed foods and restaurant items, which often contain lots of added sugar.

It gets easier to keep sugar consumption down after the first few days. I know that both from the science and from personal experience.

Like any addiction, you’ll feel a little low energy and grumpy for a while, and you’ll likely find yourself thinking about sugar-rich foods surprisingly often. But, after just a couple of days, those candy daydreams will pass and your energy level and mood will be better and steadier throughout the day.

Telling people to eat less sugar isn’t enough. Sugar consumption poses a public health threat and needs to be treated as such.

As U. California San Francisco professor Robert Lustig and colleagues argue in a commentary in the current issue of “Nature,” governments regulate alcohol and tobacco sales to protect public health and well-being, and it’s time to do the same with sugar.

We wouldn’t let vending machines in our schools distribute cigarettes, whisky or cocaine to children. Sugar has similar addiction and health consequences, and yet we flood children with sugar in schools, at home and on holidays.

If that sounds radical, remember there used to be cocaine in Coca-Cola and cigarettes used to be smoked in every building.

As science continues to discover where there are threats to our health, it is our duty as a society to limit the ability of those threats to hurt us.

As it becomes clearer that sugar posses a public health threat, we should insist it be more difficult for children to access sugar and that it be taxed to discourage its use and to pay for the costs the public bears for its consequences.

The Daily Athenaeum, West Virginia U. via UWIRE