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Sugar Is the New Tobacco

Those of you who were around in the 1950s probably remember tobacco companies spreading denial, doubt and confusion to convince people that smoking does not cause lung cancer. In 1954, U.S. tobacco manufacturers paid hundreds of newspapers to publish their "Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers" which made many people believe that smoking was harmless. The tobacco companies promised to support unbiased research into the health effects of smoking. This was followed by many more years of deceit that cost millions of lives.

Pepsi, Coca Cola and Dr Pepper, the three largest soft drink companies in North America, are now trying to make people believe that the harmful effects of their sugared drinks can be offset by exercising. The truth is that very few people exercise vigorously enough to be able to burn up extra calories from soft drinks or any other source. Exercise without also reducing calorie intake is extremely unlikely to cause you to lose weight. To balance the 200 calories in a 20-ounce soda, most people would need to run for an hour. You can eat a 1,500-calorie fast food meal with a sugared drink in less than five minutes, but it will take more than three hours of vigorous exercise for most people to burn off that many calories. Over the last 30 years, North Americans have become more obese than ever before, largely because they have increased their intake of sugar and other refined carbohydrates by 400-500 calories a day with little or no change in their amount of exercise.

An editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM, April 2015) says, "You Can't Outrun A Bad Diet". Eating too much sugar and refined carbohydrates is a far greater cause of obesity than not exercising, drinking alcohol and smoking combined. Every extra 150 calories you consume each day from sugar gives you a 10 percent increase in risk for diabetes. Reducing sugar and other refined carbohydrate intake, even without losing weight, can help to prevent diabetes and its horrible side effects that can damage every cell in your body.

More than one-third of North Americans are obese, defined as having so much extra fat that they are at increased risk for heart attacks, strokes, type-2 diabetes and certain cancers. Indeed, even normal-weight people can be damaged by taking in too much sugar and refined carbohydrates such as bread, cereals and pasta. Up to 40 percent of people with normal weight and body mass index (BMI) have high blood pressure, heart disease or non-alcohol-related fatty liver disease, all associated with excess intake of sugar and other refined carbohydrates.

The Food Industry Promoted This Obesity Epidemic
In 2013 alone, Coca Cola spent an astounding $3.3 billion on advertising to make you think that all calories are equal. Their ads are designed to make you think that sugared drinks should be consumed by exercisers, that it is safe to take sugared drinks as long as you exercise, and that celebrity athletes drink them so you should too. The authors of the BJSM editorial write that, "Celebrity endorsements of sugary drinks, and the association of junk food and sport, must end . . . This manipulative marketing sabotages effective government interventions such as the introduction of sugary drink taxes or the banning of junk food advertising."

The Food Industry Influences Results of Scientific Studies
A study in PLoS Medicine (February 2013) showed that studies funded by the sugar industry are five times more likely to show that sugar does not cause weight gain than those with non-industry funding. This review of 206 studies on the health effects of soft drinks, fruit juices and milk concluded that “industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for public health.” (Milk is included because it contains lactose, a sugar made up of glucose and galactose bound together. Galactose is the most pro-inflammatory of the sugars).

The Food Industry has Tried to Influence Me
Four years ago a personal friend from my old marathon days, who is also a respected research physician, sent me a letter criticizing an article I wrote condemning sugar and high fructose corn syrup as being harmful to health. He did not tell me in that letter that much of his research was funded by the sugar industry. This year, I found out that many of his studies exonerating high fructose corn syrup were funded by the sugar industry: ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo International and Kraft.

How Excess Sugar Leads to Obesity and Diabetes
Sugar in a drink can cause a much higher rise in blood sugar than sugar in a cookie. When you take sugar in liquid form or added to food, blood sugar soon rises. The extra sugar can be burned for energy and a meager amount can be stored in your liver and muscles. All the rest is immediately converted to a fat called triglyceride. Blood triglyceride levels rise very high just minutes after you take any sugared drink. Your body tries to protect you from too high a rise in blood triglycerides, so it uses up the good HDL cholesterol to carry triglycerides to be stored in fat cells to make you fat and to the liver to increase risk for diabetes.

Your liver controls blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels rise, the pancreas releases insulin which drives sugar from the bloodstream into liver cells to lower blood sugar levels. However, high levels of triglycerides in the liver ("fatty liver") prevent the liver from accepting the sugar so blood sugar levels remain high, in spite of the extra insulin.

High levels of blood sugar cause sugar to stick to the outside membranes of all the cells in your body. Once stuck on a cell membrane, the sugar can never get off. It is converted by a series of chemical reactions to sorbitol that destroys the cell to cause blindness, deafness, heart attacks, impotence, dementia, kidney failure, heart attacks, cancers, and so forth.

Mexico in the Forefront
Mexico is one of the first countries to implement a tax on sugared beverages, at one peso per liter. According to an editorial in JAMA (June 16, 2015), the early results are promising, with a ten percent reduction in sugared beverage sales. The authors of the JAMA editorial recommend:
• Tax unhealthful foods
• Enforce nutrition labeling
• Regulate marketing of unhealthful foods to children
• Restrict sale of unhealthful foods in public places such as hospitals and schools
• Make water available everywhere

Recommendations from the BJSM editorial
• Celebrity endorsements of sugary drinks should stop.
• Health clubs and gyms should remove sugared drinks and junk food from their premises.
• Governments should tax sugared drinks in the same way that they tax cigarettes.
• Junk food advertising should be banned

My Recommendations for You
• Avoid all sugary drinks, including fruit juices and milk, except during prolonged and vigorous exercise
• Restrict sugar-added foods
• Restrict red meat as it tends to block insulin receptors
• Exercise
• Avoid overweight, particularly extra fat in your belly and liver
• Get blood levels of hydroxy vitamin D above 50 nmol/L

June 21st, 2015
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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