Sugar is the most toxic ingredient in modern diets

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In this blog, fitness specialist Brendan Blackburn shares the views of sports scientist Professor Tim Noakes and why his concerns about excessive sugar intake in our diets make a good deal of sense.

While reading Professor Tim Noakes’ controversial book Challenging Beliefs, you could be forgiven for hearing the lyrics of ’70s singer-songwriter Sixto Rodrigues’ Sugarman floating through your head. Noakes speaks of our society’s addiction to sugar, its toxicity and that some, including author Jeff O’Connell, place it in the same league as nicotine and cocaine. According to a 2008 study led by Bart Hoebel, professor of psychology at Princeton University, sugar can lead to changes in the brain and behaviour, similar to those caused by drugs. Hoebel adds that in certain models, sugar-bingeing causes long-lasting effects on the brain and increases the inclination to take other drugs of abuse, including alcohol. In this case, the “Sugarman” is the multibillion-dollar industries that seem to feed off society’s dependence on and predilection for the substance.

Sweet as sugar

We all know how sugar satisfies our sweet tooth, and we tend to blame it when the kids run around in circles with a “sugar high”, but how much do we really know about what is being touted in nutrition circles as a “legal drug”.

As Noakes says: “Rule 6 – sugar, not fat, is the single most toxic ingredient of the modern diet. It is also the most ubiquitous foodstuff on the planet.”

He adds: “We are eating 10 times as much sugar as did our great-great-grandparents, few of whom suffered, as we do, from obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.”

In fact, research from the American Heart Association shows that the average American adult eats 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, while teens take 34 teaspoons a day. Currently 17% of children and teens living in the US are considered obese. Obesity has contributed to 35 million deaths annually, worldwide, from related lifestyle diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The BBC reports that one in four primary-school pupils in Ireland is overweight or obese, as are one in five teenagers and 60% of adults. Maureen Mulvihill of the Irish Heart Foundation has requested a 20% sugar tax, saying that this would encourage a shift towards healthier drinks such as water. She was quoted as saying: “It would raise revenue that government could put towards health promotion and other public-health interventions to prevent obesity and reduce other cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.”

Part of the problem, says Noakes, is how we have evolved. He includes a quote from Winston Churchill: “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”

This is the philosophy that underlies Noakes’ theories and ideologies. He explains: “Although we, as humans, have evolved over millions of years, we essentially function the same. However, it is our eating habits that have changed more dramatically over the last few hundred years, as food supplies have become abundant.” Society’s eating habits now largely depend on how many take-away drive-throughs one can visit on a daily basis.

Noakes states: “The US dietary guidelines also propose that sugar can take up to 15% of daily calories in a ‘healthy’ diet; these utterances simply prove that money ultimately talks.”

The question Noakes puts to consumers, through his book, is what constitutes a “healthy eating plan”, if the very health organisations that feed us this information are more worried about their financial statements than the people who are consuming the information?

Fat equals fat

The notion of fat making us fat is also questioned by Noakes, who says: “My conclusion is that the theory that proposes that blood cholesterol causes heart disease is at best tenuous, and at worst wrong.”

This could be considered a bold statement, particularly by the medical fraternity, but Noakes references numerous studies dating back to the 1950s that substantiate his theory.

He believes that more major predisposing factors to heart disease are smoking, hypertension and diabetes, rather than cholesterol. His reasoning is that the very industries that provide us with the medication for sickness and diseases want to keep this information privy only to themselves. “Anti-cholesterol drugs are some of the most successful drugs of all time!” he says, in an interview.

One particular statin drug became the best-selling pharmaceutical in history, with sales reported to be $12,4 billion in the USA in 2008. Although it is one of the most prescribed medicines, Noakes isn’t fond of the drug, saying that in the future, “statin drugs will be shown to 1) not be very useful, and 2) produce side-effects that have not been properly excluded yet.”

But how have we, as consumers, found ourselves in this situation, considering the advances made in medicine and science? He explains that when the US dietary guidelines were produced in 1977, “fat was declared the enemy without any substantial evidence”. It was then that the boundary lines were drawn, he says.

The American Dietary Guidelines 2010 Advisory Committee found that 37% of Americans have cardiovascular disease and 34% have hypertension – a rather staggering statistic considering that the USA has a population of 314 million, which equates to around 116 million people living with cardiovascular disease. Noakes asks: If we know how to both prevent and treat this disease through medicine, why is a third of the American population still affected?

“We listen to the Americans, but their model has failed. They have the highest rate of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in the world, and they tell us how to eat. It’s ludicrous.”

Noakes points out that the French, Swedes, Swiss and Japanese all have lower incidence of heart disease, so perhaps we should be enquiring about their eating habits instead.

He sums it up: “If you wanted to improve Springbok rugby, you wouldn’t go to the Bangladeshi coaches and ask them how to play rugby, would you?”

What should we be eating?

Noakes believes that we should be limiting our intake of carbohydrates. His theory is based on the fact that sugar, rather than fat, should be the enemy against which we wage war. He says that humans were eating meats and animal fat as far back as 2,5 million years ago, and it has been only in the last 20 000 years that cereals and grains have become a staple part of the human diet. “You can’t push the pancreas and expect it to last,” he says, referring to our diets that tend to comprise refined sugars, breads, refined cereals and pasta. Glucose spikes are considered to be toxic to the body and can cause a number of harmful long-term effects, he adds.

Noakes is not alone in this thinking. Dietician to the Sharks Rugby team, Danielle Roberts, adds: “South Africans are eating extremely high refined carbohydrate diets in terms of fast foods; almost 50% of patients I see are diabetic.”

London-based nutritional therapist Angelique Panagos agrees. “We should be eating a balanced diet of protein, fat and carbohydrates daily. Our genetics have changed little since hunter-gather times, and optimum health depends on basing our diet around food we were genetically suited to eat. We should, therefore, be eating a diet as close to nature as possible and avoid foods that cause stress for the body.”

However, both Roberts and Panagos believe that while Noakes’ eating philosophy has merit, it lacks a balance of nutrients and food groups. “We need a variety of nutrients to satisfy all our bodily needs,” says Roberts.

She adds that carbohydrate intake should be based per kilogram and on your activity level. “A 50kg female who does no activity may need only 100g of carbs a day, whereas an 80kg athlete may need 400g a day. One must remember that insufficient carbohydrates can induce ketosis, which is not desirable for long durations.”

The Health Professional Board for Dietetics (HSPCA) has also verified its stance on Noakes’ dietary advice, and has warned against following a high-protein, high-fat and low-carb diet. Noakes is also concerned about the amount of fruit we eat. His theory is that most fruits contain high amounts of fructose (sugar), and that we should limit intake to occasionally, and rather choose low-sugar fruits such as apples and berries.

In an opinion piece published in the journal Nature, entitled The Toxic Truth About Sugar, authors Robert Lustig, Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis say: “A growing body of scientific evidence is showing that fructose can trigger processes that lead to liver toxicity and a host of other chronic diseases. A little is not a problem, but a lot kills – slowly.”

However, Roberts says that fruit contains natural sugars and she still recommends two servings a day for optimum health.

Panagos adds: “There is no comparison between eating an apple and eating a doughnut. Professor Noakes is missing out on nutritious offerings such as high levels of micronutrients, soluble fibre, phytochemicals such as hesperidan (citrus fruits) and ellagic acid (strawberries), which are linked to reduced risk of heart disease and have cancer-fighting properties.”

As science improves and more research is done, so we will be forced to challenge our beliefs and eating habits. Ultimately, whether Noakes’ evidence is substantial enough for drastic change is still under debate, but it does make us question where we get our information from and how we obtain this information in the future.

As Noakes says: “People must realise that they must look after their own health, because industry is not going to look after it for them.