It took me a couple of days to digest the article while sitting in doctor and dentist waiting rooms, but the facts, photos and statistics made a compelling argument about the toxicity of sugar. The article is written by Rich Cohen who also writes for Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. Cohen begins in an elementary school in Clarksdale, Mississippi where administrators realized the magnitude of the obesity problem in their school and removed drink machines, vending machines and deep fryers from the school and completely changed the meal options offered in the lunch room to healthy fare. Baked rather than fried, fruit instead of candy healthy options and habits were established to promote a commitment to health and wellness.
Cohen outlines the history of sugar beginning 10,000 years ago with sugarcane in New Guinea. It spread slowly from island to island and was used as a cure all for every ailment. Years later, in 1493, Columbus carried sugarcane on his second voyage to the New World. That began the use of the Caribbean islands as the big producers of sugar and slave plantations on the islands. This in turn, Cohen writes, lead to “great smoky refineries on the outskirts of glass cities, to mass consumption, fat kids, obese parents, and men in XXL tracksuits trundling along in electric carts.” I did appreciate Cohen’s outline of the history of sugar production beginning on the island of Barbados. Having spent some time on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John and wandering around the remains of sugar plantations, I got some more insight on how brutal that island life was. I had always marveled at how the thick, hilly, forested lands were cleared and terraced by sheer manpower. The life on a sugar plantation was especially brutal for the slaves forced into labor.
“And yet there ws no stopping the boom. Sugar was the oil of its day. The more you tasted, the more you wanted. in 1700 the average Englishman consumed 4 pounds a year. In 1800 the common man ate 18 pounds of sugar. In 1870 that same sweet-toothed bloke was eating 47 pounds annually. . . . By 1900 he was up to 100 pounds a year. . . . Today the averatge American consumes 77 pounds of added sugar annually, or more than 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day. ”
Here are some other highlights from the article:
Cohen interviewed a nephrologist, Richard Johnson, from the university of Colorado Denver who observed that every time he studied an illness and traced a path to its first cause, he found his way back to sugar. Also, “Why is it that one-third of adults have high blood pressusre, when in 1900 only 5 percent had high blood pressure . . . .Why did 153 million people have diabetes in 1980 and now we’re up to 347 million? Why are more and more Americans obese? Sugar, we believe, is one of the culprits, if not the major culprit.”
During the 1960s the blame for heart disease and diabetes began to point at too much saturated fat in the diet. Therefore, folks began to have low fat diets so that fat makes up a smaller portion of the American diet than it did 20 years ago. However, interestingly, the portion of obese Americans has only grown. Johnson blames sugar, especially fructose. Here’s how Johnson sums up his findings:
“Americans are fat because they eat too much and exercise too little. But they eat too much and exercise too little because they’re addicted to sugar, which not only makes them fatter but, after the initial sugar rush, also saps their energy, beaching them on the couch. The reason you’re watching TV is not because TV is so good . . . but because you have no energy to exercise, because you’re eating too much sugar.”
Cohen then goes into the addictiveness of sugar and how our bodies evolved to process sugar beginning with fruits. Our bodies just crave the stuff. Basically, an injection of sugar into the bloodstream stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain that respond to heroin and cocaine. All tasty foods do this to some extent, but sugar has a sharply pronounced effect. In this sense it is literally an addictive drug. And it’s more than just empty calories. Excessive sugar really is the root of the evil that has lead to so many unhealthy Americans. The average American eats 22.7 teaspoons of sugar each day. Even if we are not adding extra sugar to our cereals or coffee and tea, so much of it comes from hidden sources and processed foods.
The article also has some fabulous photos and statistics of cupcakes, candy, syrup, cereal, cotton candy, soda and white sugar. It is a pretty compelling outline of the evolution of sugar and its affect on our population. I think back on my own middle school days. We had vending machines with a free for all for our recess time complete with Coke and Hot Fries. However, I know when I got home from school there was no real snacking until dinnertime. If I told my mom I was hungry, she would offer me a glass of milk. If I was playing outside and got thirsty, she offered me the water hose. Fast forward to these days. I can’t remember any of my boys’ early days of soccer when they weren’t offered sport drinks, Capri Suns, cupcakes and cookies after a practice and a game. And this started when they were four! They weren’t running around stripping their little bodies of electrolytes that would warrant a sports drink! The constant offering of cupcakes and the like turned what should have been a “once in a while treat” into a common occurrence. The thought of having a real treat is pretty foreign these days, I think.