What's so bad about sugar?
By Amy Willis
What’s so bad about sugar? According to this week’s EconTalk guest Gary Taubes, just about everything. Taubes’s real concern is insulin resistance, which he argues is the trigger for most diseases that afflict the denizens of the Western world. While we don’t really know just how much sugar the average person consumes, the FDA estimates sugar consumption has seen a thirty-fold increase- from approximately five pounds per capita annually to approximately 155 pounds- in the last 200 years. Taubes speculates on whether sugar is better considered a drug or a food (prompting some hilarious confessions and a Willy Wonka reference from host Russ Roberts), and poses a very interesting thought experiment. (This starts at about the twelve minute mark; give it a try… I did, and it was a little scary…)
Taubes reminds listeners that his new book and the subject of this conversation, The Case Against Sugar, is like all his previous work; it’s really about good science versus bad science. Because the human body, like the economy, is so very complex, it’s extremely difficult to parse out the effect of a single variable. Taubes maintains though, that every culture which adopts the Western diet and lifestyle invariably falls victim to the cocktail of ailments we face- including obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, etc. “The agent is sugar,” he warns. And it’s dangerous because it’s so delicious.
The conversation raises a lot of questions about the nature of paradigm shifts and the departmentalization of sciences…Taubes blames a lot of the confusion about sugar on the fact that research has been focused in the wrong fields. I was very interested to learn, for example, that by the middle of the 20th century, obesity research was dominated by psychologists, even while endocrinology (which Taubes argues is a more appropriate home for such research) was coming into its own. The focus naturally was behavioral- change the way fat people behave, and they’ll slim down. There seems to be plenty of evidence, anecdotal and empirical, that this isn’t the case. Taubes maintains that by both looking to other fields and to the history of nutrition research, the answer is clear. (But you’ll have to listen or read the highlights for the full explanation…)
Naturally, the episode has me thinking about sugar consumption in my own family… Happily, we’re thus far free of many of the health concerns Taubes cites, but like Russ, I’d be happy to drop a few pounds… Have any of you made changes along the lines Taubes proposes (“jack up the fat!”)? If so, did it work, and more interestingly perhaps, did it stick?