Sugar: A Bitter Impact on Health

We only have one week left in Soda-Free Summer, but in light of a talk I recently attended, I wanted to encourage you to keep that trend going through the fall and winter! The talk took place in Berkeley and was entitled The Science of Sugar & Its Bitter Impact on Health. Dr. Robert Lustig of UCSF was the main speaker, and we also heard from Dr. John Swartzberg, Dr. June Tester, and Dr. Pat Crawford, PHD.

All of these doctors focused on different aspects of the same message: Sugar is the #1 culprit for the health crisis in America and increasing problems in the developed world.

Does this seem like an extreme statement to you?

Are we really in a “crisis”?

Is sugar really more deadly than cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol?

soda-free summer

photo sourced through Creative Commons originally posted at

The statistics and information relayed to the group during this presentation were staggering. Rates of obesity and diabetes are skyrocketing, and the patients are getting younger and younger. Both Lustig and Tester have said that they got into pediatrics to avoid working with adult-onset chronic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, fatty liver disease, etc. They are now dealing with these diseases in their young patients every day with increasing frequency and severity.

What’s the culprit? Sugar.

How can we account for the drastic increase of sugar in our diets?

There were a number of wonderful soundbites through the evening, and I wish I could have recorded them quickly enough to share every one of them with you, but one from Dr. Tester in particular stood out very clearly:

“If I have 30 seconds with a parent of an overweight kid, I tell them to focus on what the kid is drinking.”

What are kids drinking? Soda. Energy drinks. Sports drinks. Fruit juice. 

image sourced through Creative Commons author: Uporabnik:Gap

According to a statistic that Dr. Lustig provided, 30 to 32% of the calories that teenagers ingest every day are sugar, and most of that is from sugary beverages. Parents tend to keep a closer watch on the younger children, but fruit juice and so-called “healthier” drinks like Vitamin Water, sports drinks, and Naked/Odwalla puree-style juices are just as detrimental with their ridiculously high sugar content, and pediatricians everywhere are seeing the effects on even very young children.
photo sourced through Creative Commons originally posted by USDA

photo sourced through Creative Commons originally posted by USDA

It takes 6 oranges to make a glass of orange juice. Dr. Lustig famously challenged a student to eat 6 oranges while his classmate drank 8 oz of orange juice. The student drinking the juice gulped it down and was ready to eat while the one eating 6 oranges wasn’t able to keep them down. The message here is not about the whole fruit — it’s about the juice from the fruit absent the fiber. The fiber in the fruit is what makes us full and satisfied. It’s what slows the sugar from rushing into our livers and blood streams causing an overload to the pancreas as it floods our bodies with insulin. It’s what promotes healthy bowel function and cardiovascular health. Without the fiber, the fruit juice is just sugar and calories without the satisfaction of becoming full.
When we drink calories, we add to our caloric intake without even realizing it, and when those extra calories are from sugar, the consequences are far greater. Absent the fiber, the sugar in fruit juice has the same effect as the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in soda.


Dr. Lustig demonstrated in his presentation (and in his book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease (affiliate link) and in all of the work that he does at UCSF) that HFCS has the same negative effect on the liver as alcohol. Let me repeat that. High fructose corn syrup has the SAME EFFECT as ALCOHOL on the liver. Your teenager might not be having beers at the bowling alley on Friday night, but if he’s drinking soda, he’s damaging himself in the very same way.

Health Concerns

We’ve talked about the effects on the liver, and I briefly touched on the pancreas, but let’s connect those dots and add a few more to the picture.


When our blood stream is flooded with sugar, our pancreas has to work hard to send insulin in and neutralize that sugar. When this physiological reaction happens repeatedly, two things could eventually happen: 1) an overworked pancreas can eventually completely stop working, or 2) our overworked cell membranes stop allowing the insulin in to neutralize the sugar. In both cases, the result is diabetes.

Cardiovascular disease

If you’ve seen a doctor about your heart health, you have probably heard that it’s important to limit sodium intake. But it turns out that sugar is even more detrimental to cardiovascular function than sodium. Dietary sugar increases uric acid, which constricts arteries, which creates hypertension. That statistic I mentioned earlier about teenagers consuming 30 to 32% of their calories in sugar bears repeating. This level of sugar consumption increases risk of death due to heart disease 4-fold.

Photo sourced from Creative Commons Author: epSos .de (source linked)

Photo sourced from Creative Commons Author: epSos .de (source linked)


In 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger signed bills to ban the sale of sodas in high schools and set fat, sugar and calorie standards for all food, except cafeteria lunches, which has saved the state of California an estimated 20 million dollars so far. This was a tremendous step in the right direction at the policy level, and we need to make decisions on the home front to keep ourselves and our children healthy for the long haul.
By setting a good example as adults and providing those healthy choices at home, we can encourage our kids to make the right food and drink choices. Make soda and junk food unavailable at home and create an environment that fosters health and wellbeing for our families. Encourage your kids to drink water.. Try infusing water with fruit and herbs to keep it interesting. Set the example and reap the benefits.


The World Health Organization recently revised their sugar consumption guidelines from less than 10% of daily calories to less than 5%. This amounts to no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day for adults. One soda has about 40 grams of sugar. These guidelines include added sugar in processed foods as well as natural sources of sugar such as honey and maple syrup. One more time I”ll bring up that 30 to 32% of sugar in the average teenager’s diet. This has to change.

2 thoughts on “Sugar: A Bitter Impact on Health

  1. Pingback: 10 Simple Weight Loss Hacks to Start Today | Cultivated Wellbeing

  2. Pingback: Step Out Walk to Stop Diabetes THIS Saturday | Passport to a Healthy Me!

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