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Hidden in Plain Sight: Sugar and Smoking are Disturbingly Similar

I am a millennial (barely), growing up in the 80’s and 90’s. Even then, I knew smoking was addictive and bad for you. This consensus and broad public knowledge, even in children, came from numerous efforts. I can still sing the catchy campaign launched in the late 80’s, “We are the smoke-free Class of 2000.” During that same time, I ate sugary cereal every morning, a school lunch of largely processed foods with chocolate milk, TONS of candy (where don’t they sell it?), and routine trips to vending machines for pop. Despite the expanding epidemic of diabetes and obesity in adults and now children largely linked to excessive sugar, there has been no change in how children learn to eat or a broad public consensus understanding of why it is detrimental and needs to change. During the “healthy aging” month of September, let’s take a step towards being in the know.

Drowning in Sugar

In March of 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) released new sugar intake guidelines. For an adult with a normal body mass index (BMI), it works out to about 6 teaspoons – 25 grams – of sugar per day. How much is that? Well, a can of soda may contain up to 10 teaspoons or 40 grams of sugar (almost double the daily guidelines!). It is not just the obvious sugary drinks/foods found in desserts like cookies and cakes that overwhelm a healthy daily dose. Many people don’t realize much of the sugar they take in are “hidden” in processed foods. A tablespoon of ketchup, for instance, has 1 teaspoon of sugar. Even some foods promoted as “natural”, “healthy” or “low fat” are laden with added sugars. In fact, manufacturers add sugar to 74% of packaged foods sold in supermarkets. Efforts to educate the public about how much sugar we intake have largely been ignored. No one knows this better than celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

In his second season premiere of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, Oliver filled a school bus with 57 tons of sand to represent the amount of sugar kids consume in flavored milk in a week. Only 20 people showed up. Even if you are aware of the health hazards of excessive sugar, tracking it in your food can be hard to do, unnecessarily so. When listed as an ingredient it can take on up to 61 different names other than simply “sugar.” When listed on nutrition facts labels, it is one of the only ingredients that does not tell you the % of daily values present per serving size. If it did, labels like this one would tell you, based on the new WHO guidelines, nearly 100% of your daily sugar intake are found in one serving size.

Taking Its Toll

We all need some form of sugar for normal function, but it is easy to have a consistent diet overdose that slowly and steadily causes terrible things to happen all over the body:

  • Cavities
  • Insatiable hunger
  • Addiction
  • Cognitive decline
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Gout
  • Weight gain
  • Obesity
  • Insulin resistance
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes (#1 cause of blindness between ages of 20 and 75)
  • Liver failure
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Kidney disease
  • Heart disease

The growing evidence of the dangers of excessive sugar consumption are both shocking and alarming. There is no better place to review the most recent findings than SugarScience, an “authoritative source for evidence-based, scientific information about sugar and its impact on health” led by the University of California San Francisco. They have found sugar not only has an effect physically but also mentally, lighting up the same pleasure areas of the brain as cocaine or heroin.

Where Did All This Sugar Come From?

In 1976, a Dentist in Colorado stumbled upon 1500 pages of internal documents at a closed sugar company that exposed how the Sugar Industry used Tobacco-style tactics to dismiss troubling health claims against their products, a discovery captured in the documentary Sugar Coated, available on Netflix. These “Sugar Papers” revealed that as early as the 1950’s, the Sugar Industry was funding scientific researchers to link fat, not sugar, to the growing concerns over heart disease and dismissing the health effects of sugar while aggressively marketing its consumption. Thus the “healthy” low fat diet was born and advertised. What do you have to do to make food without fat taste good? Add sugar. A further analysis of these tactics was recently published in September 12, 2016 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Decades ago we were blind to the health dangers of smoking. Now it is our addiction to sugar and processed foods that is unknowingly harming us with little being done about it. “Where we are in the sugar debate is about where the tobacco debate was in the 1960’s,” says a tobacco researcher in Sugar Coated. It is not about simply “eating healthy” and “exercising” that will lead to healthier aging, which in turn leads to more productive lives with less burden on the health care system, it is about having a societal understanding of sugar that is as clear as smoking. That comes from treating sugar like we do smoking. Watching the documentary Fed Up, also available on Netflix, is a great place to start.

By: Dr. Jordan Keith

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