Gay Taubes is the band leader of the band wagon that says all of our woes can be summed up by – it’s the sugar stupid. His latest book “The Case Against Sugar” (2017 Alfred A Knopf, New York) is, as is usually the case with popular best sellers on this subject, full of interesting true stuff about how we have been getting it all wrong for so many years but then there is a simple single secret that he has found that explains everything. As in all of those aforementioned best sellers that secret is also wrong.
Gary Taubes is not a medical specialist, he studied applied physics at Harvard, but he has done a lot of homework and written other best sellers on this theme like “Good Calories, Bad Calories” (2007) and “Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It” (2010, previously reviewed by me here). He does also have medical experts in his camp like Drs. Lustig and Ludwig.
The final verdict is summed up by him on page 209: “So the answer to the question of whether sugar, in the form of sucrose and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), is the primary cause of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome and therefore obesity, diabetes, and heart disease is: it certainly could be.”
Now that you know the punch line we can look at some of the actually good stuff.
In drawing a parallel between tobacco and sugar he concedes that, “The evidence is not as clear cut with sugar as it is with tobacco.” because it is so much harder to study sugar. But one way that sugar has killed us in droves is chapter 3, “The marriage of tobacco and sugar.” I did not know that inhaling cigarette smoke like you can’t do with cigars and pipe tobacco is because the blends of cigarette tobacco are cured a certain way that increases sugar content, and also soaked in a sugar sauce, and that’s what makes it tolerable to inhale the smoke.
I did not know that the artificial sweetener cyclomate was banned in 1970 because massive doses given to rats caused some of them to get bladder cancer and that while saccharin is still legal in the US it is banned in Canada where cyclomates are still allowed.
Then there is the confusing but interesting story about fructose which is half of sucrose and HFCS.
In chapter 6 Taubes says there are two wrong pillars of nutrition science. The first one is that eating fat is bad. OK, that is no longer believed so much. The second one that is true but still wrong, is that obese people eat too much and burn too little. Taubes talks about how the German giant of physiological medicine, Gustav von Bergmann, pointed out that wrong pillar #2 is a tautology that describes what happens but not why. It doesn’t explain anything. Dr. Bergmann pointed out something a long time ago that I came up with and thought was original. Saying that obesity is caused by too many calories is like saying being tall is because those kids got more calories and/or didn’t burn them off as well as short people. There are a lot of other problems with wrong pillar #2 – hormones, shapes, genes, tumors, animals….
A third pillar that Taubes is trying to refute is that it is not what you eat in particular but just the total number of calories that matters when it comes to obesity. That pillar of nutrition science mostly still stands. You can fix your blood pressure and cholesterol and triglycerides by eating certain calorie carrying things and not others but you can’t fix your weight or shape.
John DiTraglia M.D. is a Pediatrician in Portsmouth. He can be reached by e-mail- firstname.lastname@example.org or phone-354-6605.