Calling sugar toxic has been a constant struggle for scientists. Anecdotally, we all know throwing down in the candy aisle is a bad idea. Sugar has been linked with a variety of chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

The issue is that for decades, we were told fat was the villain. Turns out, Fat Bastard might be right. Carbs are the enemy. Ok, that’s a bit simplistic. It’s refined sugar that presents the problem.

It posed one hell of a challenge to scientists looking to prove direct links between sugar consumption and chronic diseases.

That changes today according to a new study led by Dr. Robert Lustig, famous for his books on the effects sugar has on the body. If sugar had a public enemy number one, it’s Dr. Lustig.

Published in the journal Obesity, Lustig says the research provides the definitive evidence that sugar “is toxic.”

For years, studies have attempted to offer that definitive statement. Lab studies have either been too fast or did not control for calories. Most studies examining the effects of sugar would use high doses to get to the result faster. The more gradual effects? None could be observed due to the speed.

Testing to see what happened when patients reduced sugar consumption often time did not control for the drop in overall calories. Without that control, causal factors are left on the table.

Lustig and Sugar

How do you fix that glaring omission? Control for any drop in calories due to cutting sugar. The result? Lustig and his team believe they have “hard and fast data that sugar is toxic irrespective of its calories and irrespective of weight.”

A study involving 43 African-American and Hispanic kids, aged 8-18, has Dr. Lustig pointing to victory. After collecting detailed diet questionnaires from the participants, the team designed a special diet to match the number of calories they were eating on average.

The difference? The sugar the kids regularly ate was replaced with starch. Weighing daily, the kids were told to eat more of the provided food if they dropped weight.

sugar study

The changes were damn near immediate. Kids who were insulin resistant, a precursor to developing diabetes became insulin sensitive.

“We took chicken teriyaki out and put turkey hot dogs in. We took sweetened yogurt out and put baked potato chips in. We took pastries out and put bagels in,” says Lustig. “So there was no change in [the children’s] weight and no change in calories.”

Not exactly the best diet, but Lusting and his team did it to prove a point. The reliance on starches was designed to keep the calorie levels static.

“I’m not suggesting in any way, shape or form that we gave them healthy food,” he says. “We gave them crappy food, shitty food, processed food — and they still got better. Imagine how much even better they would have gotten if we didn’t substitute and took the sugar out. Then they would have gotten even better yet. That’s the point.”

Dr. Lustig, eat a Snickers. You sound a little angry when you’re hungry.

Study Drawbacks

The paper isn’t without its own pushback. The participants in the study were already obese. Pediatricians and dietitians are quick to point out it isn’t just sugar that is the culprit, but overall consumption. We are eating too much.

It’s not that other experts are dismissing the findings. It’s the realization that everything needs to be black or white in the social media age. It’s more nuanced. Sugar needs to be cut, but so do overall calories.

More exercise for kids and adults alike. It all works in conjunction.

Dr. Lustig doesn’t disagree with that notion, but he says his findings point to sugar playing a bigger role in metabolic diseases. His volunteers showing improvement in the fat amounts in their liver suggests that sugar consumption is playing a role that could be more significant than calories.

What Can You Do?

It’s the same mantra we all hear. Eat better and exercise to the best of your ability. All things being equal and you can only choose one? Eating a healthier diet. Doing that will give you to the energy to exercise more.

Can you still have the now and then candy bar? Of course. No one wants a nanny state. Just don’t pillage the candy aisle.

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