Before the New York Times asked if sugar was toxic, before Michael Bloomberg tried to ban large sodas in New York City, before people starting calling sugar “the new tobacco,” UCSF endocrinologist Robert Lustig stood in front of a crowd of UCSF extension students and told them that the increase in obesity over the last 30 years is the result of one thing: increased amounts of sugar in our diet. Lustig’s lecture—a combination of righteous anger and dry science—went on to become a surprise viral hit: since it debuted on YouTube in 2009, it’s been viewed almost five million times.
That lecture was just the beginning of Lustig’s campaign to prove that sugar is the cause of the rise of obesity and other dangerous diseases. He wrote a New York Times bestseller, 2012’s Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, and came out with a companion cookbook The Fat Chance Cookbook: More Than 100 Recipes Ready in Under 30 Minutes to Help You Lose the Sugar and the Weight, in December of 2013. Recently, he spoke at KQED for a special presentation (airing in October) called “Sweet Revenge: Turning the Tables on Processed Food.”
Lustig’s popularity can partially be attributed to his message that obesity is the result of a broken food system—not laziness or gluttony. For many people, who’ve been told for years that if they simply had more willpower, they’d be guaranteed thinness and good health, his message is a relief.
One of those people is Cindy Gershen. When Lustig met Gershen, the owner of Walnut Creek’s Sunrise Bistro, she was 100 pounds overweight. After meeting Lustig and following his eating advice, she lost the weight and started teaching a nutrition class at Concord’s Mt. Diablo High School, where many of her students have undergone similar weight loss transformations. In 2007, she created the Wellness City Challenge, a healthy living advocacy group that encouraged restaurants to remove trans fats and citizens to exercise.
Gershen, who developed the recipes for last year’s Fat Chance cookbook, described Lustig’s message as a revelation: “I tried every kind of dieting. They said decrease your calories; increase your exercise; you’re lazy; you’re stressed out. And then I met Dr. Lustig. He said it was none of those things. It was all the sugar and it was a lack of fiber. I changed my food to the things that he told me to do. I’ve lost 100 pounds; I’ve restored my vitality, my health, and I’m happy.”
Lustig instead attributes the rise in obesity (increasing one percent every year) and other related health problems to the rise of sugary processed foods. His catchphrase—repeated throughout his lecture and his books— is that a calorie is not a calorie. Our body processes different types of fats and carbs in radically different ways. Take fat. There are good fats, like the omega-3 fatty acids (found in wild fish and flax,) and bad fats, like omega-6 fatty acid found in corn-fed beef. Omega-3s reduce inflammation and repair membranes, whereas omega-6s cause inflammation and increases risk of health problems like arthritis and cancer.
The same goes for carbs. There are good carbs, like lactose, the sugar found in milk, or fiber-heavy foods like vegetables and whole grains. But the worst carb of all, says Lustig, is sugar. It’s omnipresent in our food supply (77% of the foods in the America food supply include added sugar), and plays a huge role in metabolic syndrome, which leads to diseases like diabetes: Lustig cited a study that showed while eating an extra 150 calories per day did not increase diabetes prevalence worldwide, if those calories came from soda, diabetes prevalence went up 11-fold for the same number of calories.
The negative effects sugar has on our bodies are staggering: sugar alters our hormones so we don’t register hunger the way we normally would, making us eat more; it spikes our dopamine, making us requiring us to eat more sugar for the same effect; and it affects our liver in the same way that alcohol does. We consume an astounding 18 bags of sugar per year, and half of that is added sugar, hidden away in our ketchup and potato chips under names like brown rice syrup and fruit puree (last year, Lustig wrote an ebook called Sugar Has 56 Names: A Shopper's Guide). And even if we tried to cut down on sugar, food companies have every incentive to keep us from doing just that: sugar is a cheap preservative that extends food’s shelf life and keeps prices low.
Listening to Lustig’s lecture, it’s easy to feel powerless, or think back guiltily to the honey in your tea or the granola you ate with your yogurt this morning (“Granola,” Lustig said sternly, “is a dessert.”). Yet, there are things we can do to fix what Lustig calls our “toxic food environment.”
The most valuable change, he says, is shifting your diet to one low in sugar and high in fiber. You don’t need to skip every birthday cake or break room muffin, but toss the soda and juice (which is just as bad as soda, according to Lustig) and start eating more vegetables and whole grains. Lustig cited the famous Michael Pollan maxim to “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” but told the audience to focus on the first part of the sentence—focusing on eating real food, he said, the kind your grandmother would recognize, is the most efficient way to better health.
Lustig, a former college actor, has a flair for the dramatic. At the beginning of his lecture at KQED, he promised to “change your whole thinking about obesity, diets, and what really causes many of our most dangerous diseases.” It’s a bold claim, especially when we’re awash in diets all claiming to be the healthiest choice, with the high fat Paleo crowd competing against the low fat diet advocates (A debate which Lustig is ambivalent on: they’re both healthy, he said, but he has no preference for any particular diet as long as it’s high fiber, low sugar and free of processed foods.)
Yet, even if you’re one of the millions who watched Lustig’s original lecture, or you’ve read one of the countless articles about cutting your sugar intake, there’s still much to be gained from reading Lustig’s books, or watching his KQED lecture when it airs in October. Lustig has the ability to distill complex biological processes into simple explanations, the case studies from his work illuminate the misconceptions we have about obesity (it’s hard to argue that obesity is a personal choice when confronted with an obese six month old), and perhaps most importantly, the ability to inspire hope about an issue that often seems impossible to fix.
It’s easy to watch a YouTube video and resolve to drink less juice. It’s not as easy to get large swathes of people to stop buying soda, to reform school lunch menus or make unprocessed food more accessible to lower income populations. Yet watching Lustig talk about the injustices in our food system, his Brooklyn accent growing thicker the faster and more passionately he speaks, gives you hope. Our government may not care that they’re drowning us in sugar. The companies that sell us our food certainly don’t. But Lustig does, and he’s not going to stop talking until people listen.
Lustig’s Dos and Don’ts
- Shop the edges of the store, not aisles for real food
- Eat more omega-3 fatty acids, found in wild fish and flax
- Eat fruit as dessert, and if you’re craving cookies or cake, make your own
- Increase consumption of micronutrients, the vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables
- Up your fiber intake. Fiber protects your liver from sugar, says Lustig, and keeps you from overeating.
- Eat more whole grains like farro, quinoa, steel-cut oats, hulled barley or brown rice
- Drink your calories. Avoid soda, sports drinks and juice
- Shop hungry—it leads to poor food choices
- Eat anything with “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. That means it contains trans fat, which our bodies can’t metabolize and ends up lining our arteries.
- Buy anything that has sugar as one of the first three ingredients
- Eat corn fed beef or farmed fish. Corn oil contains omega 6 fatty acids, which lead to inflammation
- Buy processed food. “If it comes with a label,” says Lustig, “think of it as a warning label.”