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Not So Sweet

The case mounts against sugar

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SUGAR BUZZ KILL Sugar not only makes you fat, it fries your brain and liver, just like booze does.
  • SUGAR BUZZ KILL Sugar not only makes you fat, it fries your brain and liver, just like booze does.

We know foods like doughnuts and soda can make you fat, but the effects of sugar on the liver and brain are less well-known. Dietary sugar can fry your liver in much the same way that alcohol can. This, in turn, can hurt your brain, leaving you with dementia-like symptoms decades earlier than is typical.

Most people associate liver disease with alcohol abuse or hepatitis. But another type, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)—which barely existed three decades ago—has quickly become the most common liver disease in America. It isn't caused by booze or a nasty virus, but dietary sugar, which causes a buildup of fat in your liver.

Overweight people are likely candidates for NAFLD. Memory loss and diminished cognitive function are often the first symptoms, as the liver loses its ability to filter toxins that compromise the brain.

According to the American Liver Foundation, at least one-quarter of the U.S. population suffers from NAFLD. That number is expected to swell to 40 percent by 2030, thanks to the insatiable American sweet tooth and the corporate interests that feed it.

A European Journal of Nutrition study published in March 25 further solidified the connection between sugar and NAFLD. It found that even moderate amounts of sugary drinks will stimulate the production of enzymes that deposit fat in the liver.

The Washington, D.C.–based Sugar Association once touted sugar as "a sensible approach to weight control." But—alas for Big Sugar—it's becoming ever more difficult to use even the most convoluted scientific principles to promote sugar consumption, much less defend it.

In addition to NAFLD, sugar promotes a variety of other ailments, including heart disease, tooth decay and diabetes. Meanwhile, new research is mounting that suggests sugar is behind Alzheimer's disease, which has been dubbed type 3 diabetes, aka diabetes of the brain.

The case against sugar has grown steadily but quietly over the last four decades, in the shadow of dietary fat, which has widely been blamed for these ailments. Meanwhile, the Sugar Association has engaged in tactics reminiscent of those the tobacco industry employed during the height of its denial, including the funding of sugar-friendly research, the installation of sugar-friendly (and sugar-funded) scientists on government advisory panels, and even threats to scientists and politicians who question the place of sugar in a healthful diet.

In February, the USDA's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee published its findings. They include several significant sugar-related proposals, including a sugar tax.

"Sugar starts to fry your liver at about 35 pounds per year, just like alcohol would at the same dosage," wrote Robert Lustig, a specialist in pediatric obesity, in a March 20 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. "This is because fructose—the sweet molecule of sugar—is metabolized in the liver just like alcohol."

While the dust settles and sugar consumption and labeling guidelines are inevitably restructured, don't wait for any final word from government agencies. You can use your common sense—but willpower might be more of an issue.

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