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More sugar leads to more diabetes, global study finds

Eating an excessive amount of sugar increases people’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes whether or not they eat too many other types of calories and/or exercise too little and become obese.

Researchers found that for every extra 150 calories of sugar — about the amount found in a 12-ounce can of soda — available to each person in a country each day, the rate of diabetes in the country rose 1 percent.

A new study presents strong evidence that sugar consumption — independent of obesity — is a major factor behind the recent global pandemic of type 2 diabetes.

In other words, eating an excessive amount of sugar, something most Americans do routinely these days, increases people’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes, whether or not they eat too many other types of calories and/or exercise too little and become obese.

This finding may explain why some populations have low obesity rates but a high prevalence of type 2 diabetes, and vice versa. As background information in the new study notes, Sri Lanka’s diabetes prevalence rate rose from 3 percent to 11 percent between 2000 and 2010, while its obesity rate remained constant at around 0.1 percent. In New Zealand, on the other hand, the diabetes rate declined from 8 percent to 5 percent during that decade, while the obesity rate climbed from 23 percent to 34 percent.

“The issue of whether added sugars may be a population-level driver of the diabetes pandemic is of importance to global health policy,” explain the authors of the new study. “If obesity is a primary driver of diabetes, then measures to reduce calorie consumption and increase physical activity should be prioritized. However, if added sugar consumption is a primary driver, then public health policies to reduce sugar consumption warrant investigation as diabetes prevention proposals — especially for developing countries where diabetes rates are rising dramatically, irrespective of obesity.”

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Needless to say, this study is not good news for the processed food industry, particularly the soft-drink industry.

Study details

For the study, a team of researchers from Stanford University, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of California-San Francisco analyzed 10 years of data on sugar availability and adult diabetes rates from 175 countries. (Availability data rather than consumption data was used because large-scale international databases offering a direct measurement of sugar consumption do not exist.)

The researchers found that for every extra 150 calories of sugar — about the amount found in a 12-ounce can of soda — available to each person in a country each day, the rate of diabetes in the country rose 1 percent. And that was true even after controlling for a variety of factors, including obesity, other types of calories consumed, physical activity, alcohol consumption, smoking, aging, urbanization and income.

The longer a population was exposed to high amounts of sugar, the greater the prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Conversely, when the availability of sugar declined, so did the diabetes rate.

During the decade 2000 to 2010, the prevalence of diabetes worldwide rose 27 percent. Just over one-fourth of that increase can be explained by a rise in the availability of sugary foods, say the authors of this new study.

Now, these findings are observational, which means they can’t prove that sugar causes diabetes. Still, the association between sugar and diabetes observed in the study is “biologically plausible,” write the researchers, “given the numerous mechanisms by which sugar foments pathophysiologic processes leading to diabetes.”

‘Contaminating’ the American food supply

In an op-ed published online Wednesday in the Huffington Post, the study’s senior researcher, Dr. Robert H. Lustig, a UCSF neuroendocrinologist and author of the book “Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Foods and Obesity,” dropped the technical terminology for some plain talk about how the food industry is callously undermining our health:

The food industry has contaminated the American food supply with added sugar to “sell more product” and thereby uphold their Wall Street mandate to increase profits. Of the 600,000 food items in the American grocery store, 80 percent have been spiked with added sugar; and the industry uses 56 other names for sugar on the label. They know when they add sugar, you buy more. And because you do not know you’re buying it, you buy even more.

The outcome: By the year 2050, one-third of all Americans will have diabetes. Trustees of the Medicare program predict that Medicare will be broke by 2024. No health care for you. Yet just six weeks ago, Coca-Cola had the temerity to introduce its two-minute ad “Coming Together,” in which they say: “All calories count” because a calorie is a calorie; if you’re fat, it’s your fault (they claim no culpability); and because they make non-caloric drinks, they’re part of the solution. The problem is that a calorie is not a calorie; if non-caloric drinks are the solution, then by inference they’re saying that caloric drinks are the problem.

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Sugar in excess is a toxin, unrelated to its calories. The dose determines the poison. Like alcohol, a little sugar is fine, but a lot is not. And the food industry has put us way over our limit.

The food industry will summon their spin doctors. They will yet again argue that the statistics are wrong, the interpretation is too broad — but they will not be able to effectively refute the science. They haven’t yet, and they won’t succeed now. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and it’s shining brightly on the food industry’s practices. They will continue the propaganda, and try to sow the seeds of doubt. But they will be on the losing end of this battle. The UK and Australia have just this past week laid down stricter guidelines for sugar consumption. The people and scientists of the United States are onto them as well. It’s just a matter of time before the politicians follow.

You can read Lustig’s op-ed at the Huffington Post website. The study can also be read in full at PLOS One’s website.