I’ve known for a long time that too much sugar isn’t good for us, but recently I’ve come across some amazing information that explains just how dangerous it is and why. This information comes from the research of Dr. Richard Johnson, and for the first time actually explains how sugar, especially fructose, can cause serious health problems. Dr. Johnson is the Head of Nephrology (Kidneys) at the University of Colorado. He is also a medical professor there, as well as a researcher and a practicing clinician. He has been studying Metabolic Syndrome for several years. Metabolic Syndrome is a condition with several major symptoms that occur together: diabetes or insulin resistance, hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity, especially visceral or “belly fat”, inflammation, and hyperlipidemia (elevated blood fats). Actually it is the cell resistance to insulin that causes all the other symptoms associated with metabolic syndrome. Metabolic Syndrome has become epidemic in American society. One in three Americans are obese, One in four are diabetic or prediabetic, and heart disease is the number one cause of death in the country.
We know know with scientific certainty that excessive consumption of certain carbohydrates is what causes Metabolic Syndrome. This includes refined carbohydrates like flour, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and easily absorbed starches like potatoes, pasta, and bread. Extensive research has shown that all these cause large amounts of insulin to be released to attempt to deal with the elevated glucose from these carbohydrates. Over time, with repeated spikes of insulin, the cells begin to become resistant to the effects of insulin, and the body in turn secretes more insulin to try to get rid of the excess glucose. If this goes on long enough the pancreas can no longer respond to the demand for more insulin and blood sugar stays elevated; this is Type II diabetes.
Dr. Johnson’s research shows that of all the carbohydrtaes, fructose may be the worst, and the huge increase in Metabolic Syndrome and Type II Diabetes closely parallels the increased use of high fructose corn syrup since the 1970’s. American’s now consume on average over 154 lbs. of sugar annually, much of it in soft drinks. Regular table sugar is 50% fructose and 50% glucose, and high fructose corn syrup can be up to 55% fructose and 45% glucose. The only real difference between table sugar and high fructose corn syrup is that the latter is much cheaper and is now added to almost all processed foods. Dr. Johnson’s research has shown conclusively that fructose can increase uric acid levels in the blood. Uric acid levels over 5.5 mg/dl always result in the development of metabolic syndrome. Increased uric acid levels have long been associated with gout at higher levels, but have proven to be the primary driver of Metabolic Syndrome at lower levels than normally produce gout.
Dr. Johnson also found that elevated uric acid levels also damage kidney tubules, which then leads to chronic hypertension. Uric acid also increases inflammation, which then raises the risk of heart attack and certain types of cancer. He found that fructose is metabolized by a different pathway than glucose, and that glucose does not produce the increased uric acid levels that fructose does. While glucoses can be stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles for quick release to the blood stream when needed, 30% of fructose is changed directly to fat, leading to elevated blood fats and obesity. Fructose also blocks the release of leptin, which is a hormone which signals our brain that we are full, so consuming large amounts of fructose leaves us feeling hungry. Dr. Richard Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist, points out that fructose is metabolized much the same as alcohol, and says that it is technically a poison like alcohol. Interestingly, Dr. Johnson found that the second leading cause of increased uric acid levels was beer. This makes sense to me in that people who consume a lot of beer develop a “beer belly” or visceral abdominal fat which is one of the features of Metabolic Syndrome.
So does this mean that a beer occasionally or small doses of sugar will inevitably lead to Metabolic Syndrome? Research evidence shows that keeping our sugar consumption under 15 grams a day would be safe. A 12 oz. Coke contains 39 grams of sugar in the form of fructose and a liter of Coke gives you a whopping 108 grams of fructose! Diet sodas are even more dangerous than regular sodas, but for a different reason, which will be the subject of another article. Even though fruit has fructose in it, it is also loaded with nutrients that help block the formation of uric acid, and is safe in moderation (3-4 servings/day). However fruit juice is almost as bad as soda because it loses many nutrients in processing and often has extra fructose added to it.
For an excellent discussion of all the scientific evidence linking excessive carbohydrate consumption to weight gain, obesity, Metabolic Syndrome, and cancer, I highly recommend the book Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It by Gary Taubes.
The number one thing most of us could do for our health is to stop drinking soda in all forms, along with fruit juices, and significantly decrease our consumption of refined carbohydrates and starchy foods, including bread, pasta, cookies, cereals, pizza, and potatoes. Water is by far the best choice for a beverage, especially since I find that many of my patients are often dehydrated. I would highly recommend Dr. Johnson’s book, The Sugar Fix, to all my patients.
I also highly recommend Dr. Joe Mercola’s in depth interview with Dr. Johnson (watch below), and his own article on the subject. Another excellent resource is the lecture by Richard Lustig M.D. In my opinion, this is probably one of the biggest health threats that we face today, and worth your time to find out more about and make the necessary changes to your diet. Also check out my blog entitled The Ideal Diet? for more resources and information