Does Sugar Cause Obesity?

“So, when you see someone who is obese…do you ask, ‘Is it too much sugar; is it too much carbohydrate; or is it just too [insert colorful adjective] much?” Professor Julie Miller Jones, of St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, characteristically likes to get straight to the point, and she did so in her 2017 Sweetener Systems Conference presentation titled “Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice? Is This Truth in Labeling?”
Rightly or wrongly, sugar has been identified with obesity and other disease states. To this, Jones (also characteristically) proffered correctives.

“Obesity is endemic around the world: People are terrified because, while we (Americans) may be [some of] the fattest people on the planet, other people are catching up really fast,” said Jones. The Internet hasn’t helped. “Internet media is filled with misrepresentations and accusations,” says Jones.

She pointed to an Internet link [www.rheumatic.org/sugar.htm] listing 146 reasons (and counting) why sugar allegedly ruins people’s health (e.g., dietary sugar can impair the structure of DNA). World organizations such as the Pan American Health Organization have adopted strong anti-sugar policies. In Chile, for example, any product with added sugar must prominently display a black warning logo identifying the product as “high in sugar.” World Health Organization (WHO) Director of Nutrition in Health and Development, Dr. Francesco Branca, went so far as to claim that, “Nutritionally, people don’t need any sugar in their diet.”

So, are the alleged links between sugar consumption, obesity and other diseases supported by the science? Jones emphatically argues “no.” Much of the evidence claiming negative effects from sugar consumption is based on epidemiological data. “One thing that I want to emphasize to consumers is that epidemiological studies only show associations, not cause-and-effect. For example, we know that high-fat ice cream, low-fat ice cream and cell phone use are associated with obesity; we also know that sales of workout shoes and clothing are associated with obesity.” But these are only associations. High-level consumers of sugar-sweetened beverages can just as easily be marathon runners or people with poor dietary and lifestyle habits.

Sugar, per se, does not cause weight gain or diseases. Actual scientific studies claiming links between sugar and sweetener consumption to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular health or other disease conditions are problematic at best, said Jones. She deconstructed a list of studies claiming such links. Some studies were inconclusive; other studies overdosed rat diets with sugar.

“What we can do is associate excessive sugar intake and calories with obesity, and obesity with Type II diabetes,” said Jones. Ditto for excessive fat or protein intake. “There is also agreement that high circulating sugars in the blood are high-risk factors for a number of complications.” But high blood sugar levels don’t necessarily equate to high sugar consumption.

But, more fundamentally, “If you look at historic sweetener intakes, based on disappearance data, you will see that the consumption of caloric sweeteners as a percentage of the diet has steadily declined and, today, is at a slightly lower level found in the 1970s. But total calorie intake has risen, and people have become more obese over that period. What we find is that it is not grains; it is not sweeteners; it is not fat…it’s everything together: It’s the calories!”

Unfortunately, much of the public’s confusion is exacerbated by media obfuscation of already questionable scientific data, through misinterpretation and the use of misleading headlines. This encourages consumer media and non-profit organizations to create deductive links between sugar consumption and cardiovascular disease “…that we really don’t have the data to support,” Jones concluded.

This can have unfortunate consequences. One of the (several) benefits of dietary sugar is that it increases the palatability of very nutritious foods. Jones cites an example of “zealous parents in New York” that successfully banned the consumption of flavored, sweetened milk in schools. This drove milk consumption way down, “along with calcium, riboflavin and other important nutrients found in milk.” Eventually, pediatricians and parents realized their mistake and tried to return flavored milks to school lunch menus but, alas, kids had by then switched their beverage preferences to their detriment.

“We really need to be careful that we don’t, with good ‘motives,’ end up making the wrong, uninformed and untested choices that are detrimental, said Jones. In conclusion, it’s not the sugar: It’s the lifestyles and the calories! “Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice? Is This Truth in Labeling?”

Julie Miller Jones, Ph.D., CNS, CFS, LN, Emeritus Professor and Distinguished Scholar of Food and Nutrition, St. Catherine University

Posted on:August 12, 2018

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