Well-researched book paints a damning picture of sugars and starches and offers cures for carb cravings
by Craig Weatherby
Many readers who were around for its initial publication devoured William Dufty’s groundbreaking 1975 book Sugar Blues in one sitting, startled by its revelations and determined to cut sugar out of their diets.
But over time, many peoples’ firm, Dufty-driven resolutions dissolved in the sea of sugar and sugar-like starches that surrounds supermarket shoppers.
Dufty’s book raised red flags, but Connie Bennett’s comprehensive Sugar Shock!, which reflects the many scientific discoveries published since Sugar Blues appeared, puts any lingering doubts to rest.
And Sugar Shock! easily dispels attempts by America’s big food processors to spin the evidence.
As work by the front-line researchers she interviewed shows very clearly, cheap refined “carbs” dominate the standard American diet kill and cripple millions annually even as they fatten corporate profits.
Bennett does a superb job of summarizing the current state of the science, often in the form of quotes from highly credible folks like Walter Willett, M.D., Dr.PH of Harvard’s School of Public Health and nutritionist Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H. of New York University.
She answers virtually every question about sugars and refined grains and addresses the ways
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in which these unhealthful carbs lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression, and more.
The hidden health-harmer
As Connie Bennett notes in Sugar Shock!—whose text was overseen by famed, nutrition-savvy cardiologist Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D.—sugar is added to foods of all descriptions, from frozen entrees and sausages to condiments, salad dressings to those hot, ready-to-eat roaster chickens in your supermarket deli.
The sources of added sugars in packaged foods include cane sugar, honey, and corn syrup, and the sugars in these sweeteners include fructose, sucrose, dextrose/glucose, and maltose.
In fact, most packaged foods contain added sugars or refined starches, making them hard to avoid.
Even “natural” retail chains like Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats sell hundreds of foods full of refined flour and sugars… and they’ve got plenty of company in the “health” food realm.
And as Bennett points out, the metabolic effects of “whole” sweeteners like honey, fruit juice concentrate, and “evaporated cane juice” (brown sugar by another name) appear every bit as unhealthful as those exerted by white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
Sugar connected to many ill-health syndromes
Bennett also brings to light research that links sugary diets to depression, anxiety, cancer, Alzheimer’s, memory loss, sexual problems, acne, and other conditions. Excess sugar plays havoc with our mood regulators, promotes formation of brain and arterial plaques, and, as Dr. Perricone stresses, the inflammation and glycation that underlies most major diseases.
Her evidence-based examinations of the links between sugary diets and cancer are especially surprising and sobering. Tumor growth is fueled by inflammation and cancer cells are gluttons for glucose (blood sugar); low-sugar diets slow or cease tumor growth in animal studies.
In fact, we just covered an instance where a deadly cancer was linked to sugar (See “Sugary Diets Raise Risk of Pancreatic Cancer”).
|“Connie’s work spills the beans on the shocking impact of simple carbohydrates on aging and quality of life—a double whammy for humanity.”|
—Mehmet Oz, M.D., coauthor of the # 1 New York Times bestseller, YOU: The Owner's Manual (from the book jacket)
"This is really a stunning piece of work—a major contribution to the popular literature on blood sugar and carbohydrate addiction. Connie Bennett is a tireless researcher who has gone to great lengths to get the facts right and to explain them in an interesting and user-friendly way."
—Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., C.N.S., author, The 150 Healthiest Foods On Earth (Jan. 2007, Fair Winds Press) and Living the Low Carb Life: Choosing the Diet That's Right For You, From Atkins to Zone(from the book jacket)
Glycemic index called too complex to be helpful
Bennett also lays out the difficulties of trying to use the hottest new food rating tools—glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL)—to design a diet.
To say that a food is “high-glycemic” means that it raises blood sugar swiftly and sharply. And the recent wave of books touting “low-glycemic” diets has everything to do with the undesirable effect of “insulin resistance.”As Bennett notes, insulin resistance simply means that our cells shut their doors to the sugar in our blood, their ability to respond to insulin’s entreaties to “let the glucose come in” deactivated by the relentless demands for entry induced by sugary, starchy diets.This leaves our blood sugar circulating around at high levels, which promotes both inflammation and something called glycation: a category of chemical reactions in which glucose molecules bind to protein molecules in our collagen and other connective tissues, producing free radicals and causing more inflammation as well as stiff arteries, damaged organs, brain plaques, and, as Dr. Perricone points out, acne and wrinkled skin.Insulin resistance is caused by steady over-consumption of sugars and simple starches, which results in chronically elevated blood sugar levels and even more insulin resistance. This vicious cycle is a key driving force behind heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.As her expert interviewees explain, the GI of a food can be very misleading and even the more meaningful GL rankings cannot capture the interactions of foods eaten as part of a meal, whose contingencies make it impossible to gauge their actual blood-sugar impact in different dining contexts.Simple prescriptions for a healthier, tastier dietInstead of following the low-glycemic fad, Bennett echoes the simple, scientifically sound advice of nutrition-savvy physicians like Nick Perricone, Andrew Weil, Fred Pescatore, and Mark Hyman, all of whom are quoted (Dr. Perricone provided the book’s foreword).In short, they recommend favoring carbs in the form of beans, and nuts, and colorful “rainbow” vegetables and fruits, and advise us to eat substantial amounts of healthful protein foods such as beans, wild fish, and grass-fed meats or poultry with every meal.People think of beans as starchy, but most of their carbs are a very low-glycemic-impact, fiber-like kind called resistant starch, little of which get converted to calories.In fact, eating beans even reduces the blood sugar impact of sugary or starchy foods consumed many hours afterwards. And you can convert much of the starch in pasta and potatoes to resistant starch if you chill them right after cooking: see “Beans Discourage Weight Gain and Diabetes.”It will come as no surprise to our readers that Bennett’s expert advisors urge people to consume ample amounts of the omega-3 fatty acids in fish and dark, leafy greens while disdaining hydrogenated oils, which are high in heart-attacking trans fats and lack any of their original omega-3s.For more on how omega-3s can counter the ill effects of sugar and diabetes, read Sugar Shock! and our own articles on this subject: Starches found just as bad as sugar... or worseConnie Bennett wants us to understand a key point: the “simple” starches in refined-grain foods like white flour and corn starch are even more deleterious than dietary sugar.(“Complex” or “resistant” starches are the medium-length, almost fiber-like carbohydrates in vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains that don’t raise blood sugar levels sharply.)It turns out that starches raise blood sugar faster and higher than sugars do, causing white bread, pastries, cookies and the like, possibly promoting insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes more strongly than dietary sugars can.Because refined-flour foods like bagels and white breads can hit blood sugar levels even harder than sugars do, they may be even more dangerous to long term health.Refined grains include white (refined wheat) flour and corn starch, and as Dr. Andrew Weil says, most “whole wheat” bread is anything but whole grain, as it contains mostly “wheat” flour: a legal but misleading name for refined white wheat flour.Instead, we should eat breads, pastries, and pastas very sparingly, favor truly whole, unprocessed grains (like wheat berries and brown rice) and only choose flour-based products in which a whole grain flour is the first ingredient listed.Corn syrup taken to taskSpeaking of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), Connie Bennett devotes many pages to this now-ubiquitous sweetener, whose rapidly increasing use by cost-conscious, health-heedless food manufacturers paralleled the rise in Americans’ rates of obesity and diabetes over the past three decades.Bennett’s experts agree that excess dietary fructose is heart-unhealthful for two main reasons: 1) it fails to trigger the satiation signals that keep us from overeating and it 2) raises blood levels of triglycerides and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol.This is especially true because most of America’s dietary fructose comes from HFCS, which has none of the fibers, nutrients, and antioxidants that make berries and other fruits containing substantial amounts of fructose perfectly health foods in moderation.(Fructose is often and misleadingly labeled “fruit sugar” to make it seem healthier than cane sugar.)And her scientific commentators agree that HFCS—which is usually about 45 percent fructose and 55 percent glucose (but can be as much as 90 percent fructose)—promotes heart disease and obesity as much or more than it drives diabetes. Actually, there is little biochemical difference between HFCS and the cane sugar it has replaced in so many foods and drinks, mostly to increase profits. (HFCS is about two-thirds cheaper.)Cane sugar consists almost entirely of sucrose, a compound that the body breaks down into one molecule each of fructose and glucose. In other words, as far as the body is concerned, cane sugar is half glucose and half fructose, thus very similar to HFCS.However, some of Bennett’s expert interviewees from the food industry maintain that HFCS is worse than cane sugar, because of the different ways the body metabolizes pure fructose, versus fructose bound to glucose (i.e., sucrose, which constitutes 95 percent-plus of the sugars in cane sugar).As they say, fructose does not follow the metabolic pathways by which sucrose yields blood sugar (glucose), instead going straight to the liver, thus causing less impact on blood sugar but raising blood fat levels dangerously.But blaming HFCS alone for the obesity epidemic seems wrong, since the rise in obesity and diabetes rates overseas --- in developed countries where cane sugar remains the dominant sweetener – have paralleled America’s upward curve over the same period of time.All sugars share some blameThe bottom line is that in excess, all dietary sugars and simple starches promote heart disease, obesity, and diabetes: they just do it in different ways.We should stress that as part of an overall healthful, generally low-sugar, low-glycemic-starch diet, the amounts of sugars in powerfully healthful whole foods like berries and extra dark chocolate should present no problems at all.Of course if you have or are approaching diabetes, all sugar intake should be controlled closely.Even two recent studies on the relative role sugars play in promoting diabetes, which suggest that sugar-heavy diets containing only moderate amounts of calories may promote diabetes less than has been assumed—see “Calories Seen Outweighing Sugar as Diabetes Risk” don’t really undermine the case against sugars and refined starches. As we noted, the studies were only six weeks long, and Americans get a very large proportion of their typically excessive dietary calories from foods high in sugars or refined carbs, such as bread, pizza, pastries, pasta, breaded and packaged or take-out fare.Vital reading on sugars and healthIn addition to reading Connie Bennett’s excellent book, you may want to peruse some of our own summaries of recent research in this realm: