Is sugar the culprit behind the obesity epidemic in America? Maybe it’s not solely responsible, but a glance towards the past reveals that the collective approach to diet— and where we assign blame for chronic ailments like heart disease and diabetes— has been wrong for decades.
A new paper published in JAMA provides a historical context for why so many people consider dietary fat to be the cause of weight issues and accompanying ailments. In 1967, the Sugar Association (then known as the Sugar Research Foundation) paid three Harvard researchers a hefty sum to publish a paper on sugar, fat, and heart disease. Predictably, the Sugar Association decided which studies would be used in the review— the result being a body of work that exonerated sugar as a contributing factor for heart disease. Instead, blame was placed on fat, and the low-fat craze took off. Breakfast staples like bacon and eggs were vilified, and consumers went out of their way to purchase “low-fat” varieties of familiar brands.
There was only one problem. On its own, low-fat products don’t taste that great. To counter this, sugar was added to many of these foods. So while a consumer thinks he’s eating a healthier alternative, there’s just as much sugar present as in the regular fat version— if not more. Today though, we know better. A patient with diabetes, for instance, will benefit most from eliminating refined carbohydrates and refined sugars from their diet— as opposed to maintaining a carb-heavy intake but lowering dietary fats.
But if the science is backing up the idea of sugar playing a huge role in the identity crisis, then how did we get here in the first place? The answer is relatively simple. That review funded by the Sugar Association went on to be published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a prestigious academic source. As you may be able to guess, papers published in journals of such nature are the ones that drive scientific discussion. It’s an exposure issue. If the scientific community is buzzing around a handful of trusted sources, and one spouts information like that provided by the Sugar Association, the findings will spread like wildfire.
Today, sugar dominates the American diet. One University of North Carolina study found that 60% of foods purchased in grocery stores contain added sugar. There are the obvious items, like confectionary goods and pastries— but added sugar also lurks in supposed healthy foods like pastas or cereals.
The scientific community has known for quite some time about the real role of fats and carbohydrates in the diet, but public perception is still rooted in the past. Perhaps this paper can help change that.