The cure worse than the disease

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“If only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive, that material would promptly be banned,” wrote British professor John Yudkin in his 1972 academic book, Pure, White and DeadlyIts intention was to summarize the evidence that the over-consumption of sugar was leading to a greatly increased incidence of heart disease. In addition, it was certainly involved in dental cavity, in obesity, diabetes and liver disease.

Yudkin ended the first Chapter by writing, “I hope that when you have read this book I shall have convinced you that sugar is really dangerous.”

Yudkin and a small band of researchers believed there was a correlation between sugar consumption and heart disease, not dietary fat, as was the prevailing opinion of prominent and celebrity nutritionist, and a known Yudkin disbeliever, Ancel Keys. The United States Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, known as the McGovern Committee, which only released its “eat less fat” report in 1977, had already condemned Yudkin as a quack.

The British Sugar Bureau even put out a press release dismissing his claims as “emotional assertions” and the World Sugar Research Organization described his book as “science fiction”. According to the scientific thought collective of the time, dietary fat was enemy number one, not sugar.

Eat less fat

The most prominent government recommendation at the time of Yudkin’s book was to cut back on saturated fats and cholesterol. There was no stringent recommendation on sugar consumption. The researchers overstated the consistency of the literature on fat and cholesterol, while downplaying studies on sugar.

The world did eat less fat, beginning in the US in 1977, with the McGovern guidelines to replace steak and sausages with pasta and rice, butter with margarine and vegetable oils, eggs with muesli, and milk with low-fat milk or even orange juice, all these items carbohydrate based, with increasing amounts of added sugar.

There were some dissenters. The UK medical journal, the Lancet, in 1974, considered the possible consequences of recommending reductions in dietary fat, suggesting this was disingenuous to the general public by offering the statement that, “The cure should not be worse than the disease.”

We grew fatter, diseased. Postwar obesity rates around the world demonstrated a noticeable changed after 1980.  In the US, for example, the line rises very gradually until, in the early 1980s, it skyrockets. In The Sugar Conspiracy, written by Ian Leslie for the Guardian in 2016, he reported that just 12 percent of Americans were obese in 1950, 15 percent in 1980, and by 2000, 35 percent. By 2025, 18 percent of the world’s male population and 21 percent of women could be obese. The cost of treating health related disease caused by obesity around the world will top $1.2 trillion every year until 2025, at least. In Canada, 34 percent of all adults could be obese by 2025. Alarming?

Obesity, along with smoking are considered the two main drivers behind the increase rates in cancer, heart attacks, strokes and diabetes worldwide. The World Obesity Federation in 2017 predicted there will be 2.7 billion overweight and obese adults by 2025, or a third of the global population, many who are presently overweight.

When, in 1957, John Yudkin hypothesized that sugar was dangerous to public health, it was taken seriously. By the time Yudkin retired, 14 years later, he was defeated, his work derailed, reputation destroyed and he became the last person any scientist wanted to be seen with. Yudkin died in 1995. He left behind his body of work which is changing the world, slowly, because today we know more than a small fraction about the effects of sugar on our health.

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Richard Tardif
Richard Tardif is an award-winning investigative journalist, speaker, and author based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Richard Investigates public health research policies. As a general journalist he also investigates the important developments and concerns of Indigenous and environmental relations, and the future transition and preservation of viable community news. In his debut book, Stop the Denial: A Case for Embracing the Truth about Fitness, certified personal trainer and award-winning investigative health journalist Richard Tardif exposes the hype around the fitness industry, its empty promises and outright lies about dieting, exercise and losing weight. Intended for anyone looking to embrace a healthier lifestyle, Stop the Denial takes aim at some of the biggest misconceptions of health and fitness.