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August 19th, 2013:

Jeff Duntemann’s Metadiet Picobook, Part 3

Hypothesis: Sugar makes you fat.

Experiment: Stop eating sugar.

I came upon this whole business when I threw a kidney stone in late 1997. It was very unpleasant, and my urologist told me to drink nothing but coffee and water until the stone was recovered and analyzed. I did as he said. The biggest change was to stop drinking two (sometimes three or four) Snapple sweetened iced teas every day. Tea is a known factor in kidney stones, though not the only one. I did not expect what happened next: I lost weight in a big damned hurry.

The weight went fast enough that, fascinated, I continued the experiment long after the stone report came back. I gave up both sweetened and unsweetened iced tea almost entirely, for obvious reasons. I gave up sugared sodas generally. (This was when I began a love affair with Diet Mountain Dew that lasted ten years.) I stopped snacking on cookies and other sweet things. I did other experiments over the next several years, and I’ll describe them in coming days. In my case, sugar was the big one.

For most people, it may also be the hardest. I admit that there could be a Fox and Heron effect in play for my own situation: I’ve never really loved sweets, so giving them up was no huge effort. Most people I’ve talked to and read about report that giving up sugar is tough. Whether sugar is addictive is still being debated. However, there is an enormous amount of research indicating that most individuals gain weight eating sugar. I know at least one person who doesn’t, and I suspect that there is a smallish human cohort who just handle sugar and carbs better than most of us. Everybody else is going to have to go cold turkey, whatever it takes.

The case against sugar is most clearly made in Gary Taubes’ book, Good Calories, Bad Calories . It’s long, and technical, and can be a slog in spots, but I’ve read it twice and will read it again in the near future. It’s the best description of sugar metabolism I’ve ever seen. It’s how I learned that fructose is metabolized in a completely different way than glucose. Read the book, but here’s the short form: Glucose messes with your insulin levels. Fructose messes with your liver and your triglycerides, which are fat precursors. Either will put fat on you, and sucrose contains an equal measure of both. Whether fructose is worse than glucose is still being debated, but there is clear evidence that overdosing on fructose can destroy your liver. (This may also be why we lost celebrity fruititarian Steve Jobs decades before we should have. Fructose appears to be the food of choice for malignant tumors.)

Giving up sugar is doubly hard because it’s in almost everything, even a lot of things that don’t taste particularly sweet. That said, most of the sugar we ingest these days comes in through sweet drinks, particularly sodas and fruit juice. Dry wine contains almost no sugar. Beer contains very little simple sugar, but may be fattening through a completely different mechanism, which I’ll get to in coming days. Milk contains a little sugar in the form of lactose, probably too little to be a serious fat-factor.

A few researchers say that sweet tastes are enough to make you fat, and that non-sugar sweeteners won’t help you. This cooks down to insulin sensitivity, which varies hugely across the human species. Some people’s insulin systems are so sensitive that sweet tastes of whatever source cause an insulin pulse. However, like the people who can ingest all the sugar and carbs they want without putting on weight, this is a minority trait, on the opposite extreme of the sugar-metabolism spectrum. I’ve known a number of people, some of them quite well, who lost an enormous amount of weight simply by switching from sugared sodas to diet sodas.

So if you really can’t eliminate all sugar from your diet, at least get rid of the obvious sources: Sugared drinks and sweet snacks. Give it a month, and if the trend is in the right direction (even if it’s not a huge trend) give it another month.

Note well that I only mean sugar here, not carbs generally. Carbs are not all the same. This is a point that I’ll come back to later on.