Our sugar consumption is, frankly, out of control. On average, Americans keep eating more of the sweet stuff every year, we crave it (terribly) when we cut back, and even as health professionals have told us for years that it's something we are eating (and drinking) too much of, we keep shoveling it in, with the invariable result that more of us are overweight and obese than ever before, and even worse, kids are following the lead of adults (to the point where parents can't even tell when their kids have a weight problem anymore).
The World Health Organization suggests consuming 40-50 pounds of sugar a year, based on a 2,000-2,500 calorie-a-day diet. But we are up from 122 pounds a year in 1970 to 150-170 pounds a year in the late 2000s. The average (meaning some people are eating more) is three times what it should be. And compare that to the 7-8 pounds a year we ate in the 1700s (though obviously wealthy people had access to much more than that, while poor people probably got none), and in just a few hundred years of human history, well, Houston, we've got a problem. If we keep going at the rate we have been, our diets will be 100 percent sugar by 2606.
Of course that last stat is a bit silly, but taking all the information into account, it begs the question: Are we a nation of sugar addicts? If anything but slight decreases seem well-nigh impossible, if, despite wreaking havoc on our health (and teeth!), we still can't seem to get the sugar-plum fairy off our backs, maybe we should just admit that the sweet stuff is (at least mildly) addictive — and do something about it.
The chorus of anti-sugar activists is growing and getting louder, and they are suggesting that we might want to start treating sugar as a drug, just like alcohol and tobacco — and we may even want to regulate it as such.
Dr. Robert Lustig, a medical expert at the University of California, San Francisco, has written several papers, including The Toxic Truth About Sugar and Fructose: It's 'alcohol without the buzz' and he lays it out in no uncertain terms: "The definition of addicted is that you know it's bad for you and you can't stop anyway, like heroin, cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine. You know it's bad for you. You know it will kill you. But you can't stop anyway, because the biochemical drive to consume is greater than any cognitive ability to restrain oneself. There are two phenomena attached to addiction: one's called tolerance, the other is withdrawal. It turns out sugar does both of those as well. If a substance is abused and addictive and it contributes to societal problems, that's criteria for regulation," Lustig told Vox.com.
Lustig obviously feels strongly about the subject, and while some of his critics say his demonization of sugar is overblown, people also pooh-poohed the idea of cigarettes as problematic too. With sugar tied to every chronic metabolic disease, says Lustig, including obesity and diabetes, of course, but also fatty liver disease, heart disease, lipid problems, and even cancer and dementia, it's time to act.
But he's not suggesting we ban sugar. (Mostly because we know that doesn't work.) Lustig says, "... we're [not] going to have ice-cream sodas speakeasies or anything like that. We tried banning alcohol, and look what happened; it was a complete and utter disaster. So no one is talking about getting rid of it, but in order to solve this public health debacle we have to reduce consumption. The only way to do that for an addictive substance is to reduce availability, and the only way to reduce availability is taxation or restriction of access or banning. Forget banning; that's out. That leaves taxation and restriction of access — well, that's regulation."
So for all those people who protested former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's controversial giant soda ban (I supported it), because "people should make their own decisions about what they eat" look out: Because Lustig and other health advocates trying to keep health care costs down for all of us are trying to do something similar: use public policy to discourage unhealthy consumption of an addictive substance. And we know it will work: Just look at how few of your friends smoke cigarettes anymore.
Related on MNN:
- 12 tips for kicking the refined sugar habit
- A complete guide to sugar and sugar substitutes
- Recipe: Pear Frittata with Honey and Feta