Edible Education 101: Sugar Is Not So Sweet After All

slide from class presentation Nutrition, Health, and Diet Related Disease

Nutrition, Health, and Diet Related Disease

America’s obesity epidemic was the topic of discussion at the September 27 Edible Education: The Rise and Future of the Food Movement session at UC Berkeley. Dr. Robert Lustig, a neuroendocrinologist who studies childhood obesity at the University of California at San Francisco, spoke along with Patricia Crawford, a UC Berkeley professor who has traced the rise of the obesity epidemic and studies healthy food in schools.

Obesity Growth in U.S.
The most startling information came from Patricia Crawford who showed the rise in obesity in the U.S. over the past twenty years through a series of maps. In 1991 there was less than ten percent obesity in most state populations. But we gradually watched the map of the entire country get washed over in bright red, the color indicating the highest rates of obesity. Crawford says, "We need to create healthier food and activity environments to reduce obesity." She’s been working in the school system to figure out how to achieve these goals. Crawford has found that even Berkeley kids, who live in a healthy food mecca, share similar eating patterns to kids in the rest of the state. Crawford listed four activities that can help to control the obesity epidemic:

  • Reduce sweet beverage intake
  • Reduce fast food intake
  • Control portion size
  • Reduce time on the computer or tv

Crawford is working in policy development to reduce obesity by trying to get high calorie snacks out of schools and advocating for zoning policies on fast food restaurants near schools. Following Crawford's obesity maps were the equally startling comments on the toxicity of sugar by Dr. Robert Lustig.

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Big Sugar's Nemesis

Robert Lustig’s bracing argument in a recent New York Times magazine article on the dangers of sugar convinced me to quit my own habit. Something about his explanation of the biochemistry of sugar resonates. He explains how sugar can be toxic because of the way it breaks down and overwhelms your liver. Lustig blames sugar for the skyrocketing obesity rates in the U.S. "A type of sugar called fructose is the cause of the current epidemic," says Lustig. “Our entire food supply has been adulterated with the addition of fructose for palatability and removal of fiber for shelf life." Lustig explains how so-called healthy snacks, like low fat yogurt, can be full of sugar. According to Lustig, sugar is even added to hamburger buns and hamburger meat. He ran through several decades of food policy to explain why sugar has become an additive but the main point Lustig makes is that there has been a lot of attention on fat but fat consumption has gone down in the U.S. while our sugar and refined carbohydrate intake has gone up.

Eat Your Fruit Don’t Drink It

Even if you skip the Milky Way and go for something healthier like an orange, you still have to watch out. That orange is much healthier if you don’t juice it. Says Lustig, “A good part of the fruit is fiber but when you juice a fruit you destroy the insoluble fiber. You need it to limit the rate of carbohydrate and fat absorption into the blood stream which gives your liver a chance to catch up. Fruit is good. Juice is bad and smoothies suck.”

Sugar has been linked to not only obesity but other chronic health problems like heart disease, cancer and memory loss. Lustig says the obesity epidemic is responsible for a 65-billion dollar decrease in work productivity and a 50-percent increase in health insurance premiums. Lustig left the audience with a question to ponder: “Can our toxic environment be changed without government or societal intervention especially when there are addictive substances involved? For Lustig the answer may be regulating sugar just like we do with alcohol and cigarettes.

View the video of the entire class:

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The 13 week course, which is funded by the Chez Panisse Foundation in collaboration with West Oakland’s People’s Grocery, makes tickets available each Wednesday to the public.

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