Sugar: The next public health crisis?

Apr 04

Having worked in Ogilvy’s Social Marketing Practice for almost 12 years on campaigns that address public health issues like heart disease, cancer, and addiction, I was intrigued by the recent 60 Minutes piece “Is Sugar Toxic?” that made connections between the sweet substance and each of these issues.

The highlights for me included:

  • Sanjay Gupta’s interview with Dr. Richard Lustig, an endocrinologist, who gives an evolutionary explanation for our sugar cravings, saying “there is no food stuff on the planet that has fructose that is poisonous to you.  It is all good.  So when you taste something that’s sweet, it’s an evolutionary Darwinian signal that this is a safe food.”  To which Gupta replies:  “We were born this way?”  Lustig:  “We were born this way.”  Cue Lady Gaga.
  • Kimber Stanhope’s research linking sugar consumption to an increase in risk factors for heart disease and stroke, which I thought was the most compelling piece of the segment.  She’s in the middle of a five-year study with results that already show that consuming sugar increases our LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which in turn increases our risk for heart disease.
  • Sugar activates areas in our brains like cocaine does.  Says neuroscientist Eric Stice:  “If you overeat sugary foods on a regular basis, it causes changes in the brain that basically it blunts your reward region response to the food, so then you eat more and more to achieve the same satisfaction you felt originally.”  Now this I believe.  Just try “quitting” sugar, and you’ll undoubtedly experience some of the same withdrawal symptoms drug addicts face.

As the piece ended, I couldn’t help but picture the scene from “Thank You for Smoking” where the M.O.D. Squad (the “Merchants of Death” representing the tobacco, alcohol, and firearms industries) sit in a darkened corner of what I always imagined was Old Ebbitt Grill.  Does the sugar industry belong at the table too?  I think the science is fascinating, and it certainly makes me want to cut back on my own sugar consumption—but just like I can’t imagine life without a glass of wine every once in a while, I can’t imagine it without a grilled cheese on (gasp, sugar-laden) white bread or (double gasp) a cupcake.  I guess you could say that I’m a proponent of the “everything in moderation” mentality.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for awareness and education—especially for the average American who consumes 130 pounds of sugar per person each year.  Lustig’s parting statement:  “Ultimately, this is a public health crisis.  And when it’s a public health crisis, you have to do big things, and you have to do them across the board.”  What do you think he means, and do you agree?

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 4th, 2012 at 9:59 am and is filed under Public Health. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Sugar: The next public health crisis?”

  1. Sarah W says:

    This to me does not come as a shock and nor should it to any other health care professional battling it out against obesity and obesity related diseases. The fact of the matter is quite simple in that when the body is in a state of positive energy balance there are adverse effects on the body such as weight gain or damage to lipid profile. Sugar is a high energy food source and will ultimately launch you in to positve energy balance which is unlikely to be levelled due to falling physical activity levels. This is a public health crisis but targetting sugar alone by labelling it “toxic” will not solve what is happening to the western world. As stated above, everything in moderation should be fine but any excess amounts of certain food types can cause us damage. A holistic approach to lifestyle change needs to be taken to change the way people view food and increase activity levels. In fact current research is finding that the obesity epidemic is less to blame on gluttony and more on sloth.