A Sweet Conspiracy

Big Sugar has sprinkled our society with political injustices, leading to increased rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other chronic illnesses that devastate lives and economies.

It took politicians and those who run governments and influence business many decades to tame Big Tobacco. Along the way, the powers-that-be allowed the health of hundreds of millions of people around the world to be damaged. That’s because Big Tobacco had much more influence on politicians than scientists did. And the clinicians, those in the trenches who saw what was happening firsthand, were ignored by both.

But not much has really changed. Despite legal setbacks, Big Tobacco still does a smokin’ amount of business worldwide. Almost all these lawsuits are in the U.S. only, and in too many cases, those seemingly big legal victories against the tobacco industry have been overturned by higher courts. Tobacco companies consider these legal actions as just another cost of doing business. The U.S. remains the third-largest cigarette market for Big T behind China and Russia, with global sales continuing to rise — the last 15 years shows retail cigarette values increasing 121 percent, with the 2014 world market reaching $744 billion.

But an even bigger problem has been harming people for just as long — Big Sugar. This serious health issue has been impacting the lives of most people on the planet, not just evidenced by large rates of obesity and diabetes, two modern epidemics, but also many preventable conditions such as Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart disease. Many of these conditions can be prevented by a healthy diet, one without sugar and products the body converts to sugar. The problem, of course, is that this is the world’s most popular cuisine.

Big Sugar influences everyone, starting with newborns (even the fetus) and targeting children of all ages. It continues to affect people throughout their lifetimes, across all socioeconomic categories and in all professions. The health problems associated with sugar consumption contribute significantly to economic burden through increased healthcare costs, estimated in 2015 to be $4 trillion in the U.S. alone.

Despite the scientific and clinical consensus on the serious dangers of refined carbohydrates, the presence of sugar in meals, snacks and treats dominates most schools, workplaces, churches, healthcare facilities (including hospitals), homes, and, well, everywhere. This despite the World Health Organization, the American Heart Association, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and many others who recommend sugar intake limits well below current levels.

Credit Suisse, a large multinational financial services company, published an article, “Is Sugar Turning the Economy Sour?” in late 2013. The research institute’s study “Sugar: Consumption at a Crossroads” found that close to 90 percent of general practitioners surveyed in the U.S., Europe and Asia believe excess sugar consumption is linked to the sharp growth in diabetes and obesity. Stefano Natella, Head of Global Equity Research at Credit Suisse and an author of the study, said, “we cannot ignore the significance and the implications for society and our economy any longer.”

Consider only a few of the many problems that Big Sugar directly influences:

  • The obesity and overfat epidemics affect about 75 percent of the world’s adults and children.
  • Another related worldwide epidemic is diabetes, led by the U.S. where some form of diabetes affects more than 50 percent of the population.
  • Developing nations have undergone a “nutrition transition,” in which populations in a single generation have moved from starvation to an obesity epidemic.
  • The incidence of chronic disease continues enormous growth globally, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and others, with rising rates of chronic disease risk factors such as high blood pressure and blood fats, chronic inflammation, poor dental health, inactivity and obesity.

It’s not just the granulated white stuff, which has been compared to the devastation caused by heroin and cocaine. We also should be just as concerned about processed grains. This fluffy white flour, often darkened through processing and called “whole wheat” and other deceiving names, quickly turns to sugar after it is consumed. And up to half of these refined carbohydrates get stored as fat while simultaneously switching off the body’s metabolism so it can’t burn body fat as fuel. The result is fatigue, poor endurance, hormone imbalance and other physical, biochemical and mental-emotional stress.

Refined carbohydrates are everywhere — in restaurants, take-out, supermarkets, health stores. They are called many different names from corn syrup to sucrose, with processed flour and other carbohydrate products, including starches, frequently considered healthy because they are called “natural” and are low in fat.

Governments actually encourage people to eat such junk. For example, as in previous years, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that people consume three to five servings a day of refined carbohydrates in order to obtain certain nutrients such as folic acid and iron. However, not only can this amount of sugar be unhealthy, nutrients obtained in this format may not be efficiently absorbed or even harmful (synthetic vitamins are used in fortification worldwide, and these can have dangerous side-effects). In addition, by recommending refined carbohydrate fortified cereals, people miss out on otherwise healthy alternatives such as a vegetable omelet, smoothie or other real foods containing natural vitamins, essential protein and fat, phytonutrients and other vital nutrition not found in refined carbohydrates.

Like Joe Camel, doctors, nurses, dentists and other healthcare providers often give refined carbohydrate treats to children and adults, with parents and grandparents using sweets as rewards and as negotiation. Over generations there is now a worldwide population of sugar addicts, not unlike the cigarette smoking craze that peaked in the 1950s and 60s, only worse because the problem is not taken seriously, and the powers-that-be are addicts too.

The Remedy

The problem with a successful remedy is that sometimes the treatment is worse than the disease. Both Big Tobacco and Sugar are significant parts of the world economy, and their products fuel a multi-billion-dollar disease-care industry. Combine this with other economic giants who stand to lose big if enough people around the globe get healthy, including the pharmaceutical industry, and Wall Street’s healthcare sector — improving world health could cause a big economic crash.

While Big Sugar takes a line from Big T, that people are responsible for choosing to use unhealthy products, there’s a way to twist that cop out into a real remedy.

And the remedy is realistic and simple. Each one of us can be responsible for our own health by avoiding junk food in all its disguises, maintaining a moderate amount of physical activity and regulating stress, thereby having a higher quality of life with very low medical costs, reduced disease risk and more productivity. A happy life. These and other topics are detailed throughout this website and my books.

I used to think too many politicians and healthcare appointees were quite unhealthy. Then I realized they actually are because they are merely representative of a very unhealthy population. If everyone began burning more body fat, which can literally happen overnight by eliminating sugar from the diet, the world would be more than a better place, eventually.

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • Scott says:

    I’ve been on this diet and enjoy listening to you on Endurance Planet podcast

  • David Neilson says:

    “Another related worldwide epidemic is diabetes, led by the U.S. where some form of diabetes affects more than 50 percent of the population.”

    I have to pick you up on this statement. I’ve been a T1 diabetic for around 3 years now, and had been lowering refined sugar intake and moving towards a lower carb, lower GI diet for several years before that having read The Big Book of Edurance Training and Racing, and more recently The Art and Science of Low Carb Performance by Phinney and Volek.

    My main issue with the above statement is that it conflates all diabetes withover consumption of carbohydrate, where it is well known that T1D is an autoimmune disease with a reduced or no ability to produce insulin, in my case triggered by an attack of the flu. The result may be the same in terms of carbohydrate intolerance, but management is certainly different. As a medical practitioner I would have expected better from you.

    • David:

      I’m not quite sure what the problem is. Since people with Type I diabetes can suffer hyperglycemia as a result of a sugar-laden diet, I find it quite reasonable for Dr. Maffetone to characterize Type I diabetes as “one of the many problems that Big Sugar directly influences.”

      Nowhere in the text did Dr. Maffetone claim that excess consumption of carbohydrates was the primary cause of any of the diseases in the bullet points. For example, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, and cancer (from the last bullet point) follow the same pattern: they are not necessarily caused by excess carbohydrate consumption, and yet excess carbohydrate consumption exacerbates their negative health effects as surely as it does those of Type I diabetes.

  • Nick says:

    absolutely logical when you think about it!

    We have are being brainwashed!

  • Andres says:

    Thank you Dr. Maffetone, for taking the time to write these incredibly insightful and useful articles.

    I’ve sent many of these to my friends and family, but we need more to educate our population. I challenge everybody reading this to send to at least 10 people, as well as ask those 10 people to do likewise. We must act now to make a dent to this enormous problem. Thanks!

  • Pete Eade says:

    “This fluffy white flour, often darkened through processing and called “whole wheat” and other deceiving names, quickly turns to sugar after it is consumed. And up to half of these refined carbohydrates get stored as fat while simultaneously switching off the body’s metabolism so it can’t burn body fat as fuel.”

    Dr. Maffetone – does this happen when eating the flour (or white rice) during exercising? I.E. while cycling long distance?

    • Nope. Ingesting even very high glycemic carbohydrates while oxidation is already happening at a high rate is fine. However, fat-adapted athletes find that they don’t need to take in a lot of calories during a race.

      • Marco says:

        What about eating carbs just after a long workout? In one of his book Dr. Maffetone says that the body keeps burning more fat many hours after an aerobic workout. So I’m wondering if eating carbs just after such a workout is similar to eating them during it?

        • Marco:

          Aerobic training skews your fat-burning percentage afterward, so that the percentage of fat-burning is higher than usual, but the total energy expenditure is reduced commensurate to resting activity levels. So, because of that reduction in rate of fat-burning, it’s quite possible that high-glycemic carbs will reduce your fat-burning percentage.

  • Angelina Cordaro says:

    I love baking but because of articles such as this one I have become more weary of the health effects of refined flours. So I started experimenting with alternative flours such as coconut flour, rice flours, potato flour, etc.

    Is this acceptable? Is it ok to eat baked goods as long as I stay away from refined wheat and white flours? And also stay away from sugar by using coconut palm sugar or honey?

    You have mentioned that whole grain is the best choice for bread consumption. What is the best way to ensure that I am eating 100% whole grain? I know that some consumers can put “whole grain” on their labels but they are not truly whole grain. Are there any brands you personally trust? Is it just best to make my own whole grain flour by grinding wheat berries?

    Lastly, I want to confirm the main health issue with baked goods. Is the take away to ensure that when I bake I only use non refined flours because they are lower on the glycemic index?

    Thank you so much for your help!

    • Angelina:

      It is better to eat baked goods when you stay away from refined flours, but it’s always better to minimize starches, cereals, and other grains as much as possible.

      And all sugars are processed almost identically by the body. There is very little difference in terms of your body’s insulin response to whether you ingest honey, table sugar, raw sugar, agave nectar, maple syrup, molasses, etc. Organic honey is better for the body because it is more alkaline, but it has no less of an impact on the body’s insulin response. On the other hand, high-fructose corn syrup is worse for the body—but not because it unleashes a bigger insulin response (it doesn’t). It’s worse for the body because fructose is not as good as dampening hunger as glucose is, which means that you are liable to eat much more fructose than glucose before you get full. (And some people also respond negatively to fructose for other reasons.)

      We don’t really have particular brands of whole grain products we endorse because we don’t endorse grains, generally speaking. But the answer to your question is yes, grind your own wheat berries. Not to mention that taking control of the grinding process will let you produce a truly amazing variety of textures!

      Refined flours have a higher GI, but they also tend to be “enriched” with synthetic vitamins that aren’t all that good for the body. You also don’t want to be eating many of the bleaching agents used during the refining and whitening process.

  • Angelina says:

    Thank you so much for your detailed response!

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