With Christmas upon us, and the inevitable detox afterwards, Sarah Wilson and Alex Renton thrash out the sugar question
Sarah Wilson, broadcaster and author of I Quit Sugar
I've been asked to share why I reckon you should quit sugar. By way of a pithy opener: What sane person wouldn't agree that we need to cut our sugar intake? Oddly, it's often nutritionists and dieticians who attempt to argue against, which might be good to discuss further, don't you think?
But I'll back up a little. I don't suggest you - or anyone - should quit sugar. You'll note the title of my book is I Quit Sugar, not You Must Quit Sugar. I quit as a curious experiment because I had the grimy feeling sugar was making me feel baseline-crap and I was tired of feeling addicted and obsessed. It worked (I felt better in weeks). I researched the best techniques for making the process as easy as possible, then shared what I learned. I now issue the gentle invitation to others to try it too. If they like.
I should also highlight that I talk about quitting fructose. The biggest source of fructose in our diets is regular table sugar, or HFCS in the US, both of which are 50% fructose. This is what quitting sugar is about - quitting the (mostly) processed foods saturated in (regular) sugar.
Why target fructose? Well, because it's the only food molecule on the planet not recognised by our bodies and is, thus, metabolised in detrimental (to our health, wellbeing, longevity and looks) ways once we put it in our gobs. It wreaks metabolic havoc, leading to a host of diseases, shuts down our appetite mechanism, causing us to eat more of everything, and makes us fat, in part because it's largely processed in the liver.
Plus, I like this quote from US endocrinologist Dr Robert Lustig: "There is not one biochemical reaction in your body, not one, that requires dietary fructose, not one that requires sugar. Dietary sugar is completely irrelevant to live. People say, oh, you need sugar to live. Garbage."
Of course, I'm not suggesting anyone should quit glucose, nor other "sugars" our body can metabolise safely, nor carbs. I advocate getting healthy glucose and carb intake from whole foods, and mostly from high nutrient sources such as vegetables. Nor do I advocate quitting whole fruit. Although, I'm sure you agree, fruit juice is dire stuff, containing as much sugar - glass for glass - as soft drink.
As I say, I'm not saying you should do anything. But I'm more than happy to be challenged on any of my ideas on the matter.
Alex Renton, journalist and author of Planet Carnivore
Many thanks for your kind advice: here's why I won't take it.
I live in the world's second fattest nation, Scotland. So I'm not unaware of the problems around excess sugar in the modern diet. Like you, I've read Dr "fructose is a toxic drug" Lustig; in Observer magazine I've written on the curse of the sweet stuff in my country. I want action on sugar and those who flog it. A punitive tax on sugar-heavy soft drinks, for a start. The French have slapped one on "sodas", which is showing results.
But cut out the half a teaspoon in my tea and coffee? I don't think so.
It's not just that I cherish my little pleasures, including the odd cigarette when I've had a drink or two. It's also a matter of being realistic about modern life's many perils - and devoting energy to the ones that matter.
Few of the diet fears that torture the gullible middle class have much ground in reality. Mostly they've been invented or exaggerated to fuel the multi-billion-dollar health supplements industry. Excessive sugar is a real issue: it causes huge and expensive health problems in modern society, and government needs to address the root of those. But these problems are almost entirely among the poor. That's not me - or you, I suspect.
We do need concerted action on sugar: we don't need more healthy people fretting about their health.
SW First up, please feel free to continue taking your coffee with half a sugar! It seriously pales compared with the nine to 10 teaspoons in a glass of apple juice, the six teaspoons in an individual punnet of low-fat, "natural" yoghurt (when manufacturers take the fat out, they put sugar back in, often disguised) or the 44 teaspoons in a cinema container of Coke.
And to this extent I agree with you - restrictive, draconian edicts are not the way to deal with this issue. Diets are miserable and don't work. And, like you, I don't buy into the health supplement market. Which is why I advocate the "proactive" and highly pleasurable practice of eating more fat and protein (as you eliminate sugar): haloumi cheese, barbeque pork, coconut granola, raspberry ripple cheesecake. This works - it satiates, it gets rid of cravings as it triggers appetite mechanisms in the proper ways, and, if we boil it down, this way of eating gets us all back to the way our grandparents ate before the onslaught of modern metabolic diseases, obesity among them.
You'd be pleased to know I also don't suggest cutting out a glass of (red) wine or a beer with dinner. I'm a fan.
But we diverge here: sugar is not a poverty issue. I don't think high income helps us navigate our way any better through the hidden sugar in our food, nor does it equip you to deal with the highly addictive nature of sugar. We're all addicted, perhaps the more middle-class among us even more seductively so with our fancy cereals, agave "health" bars and low-fat yoghurts.
AR Sugar is not a poverty issue? Haven't you seen the statistics? The people eating the agave health bars or the yoghurts that worry you so are not the ones who are morbidly obese, or getting "late-onset diabetes" while still in their 20s and having limbs amputated.
I'm worried by your book. You are an influential person and your audience - especially the hypochondriacs - have a tendency to take these things all too seriously. Health scares can do a lot of harm - and it is usually we journalists who are at fault. We've seen serious outbreaks of measles in Australia and UK this year because of the parents who took seriously some sensational scare stories about the possible dangers of the childhood multi-vaccines. Turns out measles and its complications are far more dangerous than the vaccine.
Of course, no-one will be harmed by your book, I quit sugar. But the hyperbole concerns me. As you're well aware, you haven't quit sugar at all. You eat fruit, you eat granola, you eat broccoli, raspberry cheesecake and barbeque sauce! There's sugar in all of them. And of course we're "addicted to sugar" - that was hardwired when we first got a taste of it in our mothers' milk.
So, here's a request: do spread the message about excess sugar in the diet. Have a go at the sugar-peddling food and beverage corporations. But tell the truth and don't give people absolutist prescriptions they can't possibly fulfil. Or worry them away from eating what is probably healthy - a balanced variety of fresh foods cooked, shared and eaten with pleasure.
SW You ask me to tell the truth? I guess I could've called my book I Quit Foods Heavily Laden with Fructose While Still Getting More Than Enough Glucose and Other Able-to-Be-Metabolised Sugars From Vegetables, Cheese, Bread and So On.
But it's not such a catchy title. As I say, our biggest source of fructose is everyday table sugar. This is what the average person takes me to mean when I say I quit sugar.
I've also dedicated a book to explaining the "truth" and, I'd really like to stress, making people feel more comfortable about food. This is ultimately my goal. I'm totally in your corner on the perils of stigmatising food. To this end, a big part of my message is about being "gentle and kind", providing recipes that are super-approachable, eating abundantly, eating whole food and, well, eating. Not dieting. Once sugar is out, in my experience, we can do this, free from addiction.
And, yep, we have to make all of this far less draconian, especially for the time-poor, the poor and the "hypochondriacs". I try my best, partly by emphasizing the no-brainer steering of choices. Try cutting out (expensive) fruit juice, soft drink, low-fat products. Check out low-fructose cereals. Try (cheap!) porridge. It's a gentle experiment. See what works for you.
And on the stats front, two-thirds of us are overweight or obese. I know in Australia, at least, not all of this expanding sector are living below the poverty line. And perhaps you've heard of the TOFI (thin on the outside, fat on the inside)? She's a granola-crunching type emerging as a huge health concern.
But I go back to my original letter to you: I Quit Sugar. I gave it a go. It might not suit you. But if you're curious you might want to try some of the stuff that worked for me.
AR Twenty years ago you might have written a book announcing I Quit Animal Fat. Or dairy products. Or meat. Urgent as this issue seems to you now, the science comes and goes like any fashion. And it is endlessly manipulated - you can find research to prove any point you like on health and diet. I've had a breakfast cereal manufacturer tell me that there's no proven link between their sugary products and child obesity. The cigarette companies managed to deny the science on tar and cancer for a generation.
But, as with tobacco, I think the weight of opinion on sugar has now tipped decisively. And so I hope your book will be a great success - it's an idea whose time has come. And since you've been asking me to do things, can I ask you a few?
As you tout the book around, remember the people, especially the young, across the world who really are being poisoned by excess sugar. In your interviews, could you mention, perhaps, the greedy food and drink corporations and the governments that refuse to act to curb their profits. A tax on excess sugar coupled with the sort of health warnings we see on tobacco packets could make a big difference and help fund some of the appalling costs of treating the "diabesity" illnesses - $37.7bn a year in Australia.
Good luck, Sarah. Don't take your eyes off the big game. Use your book's success to help more than just the worrying well. Let's get real change on sugar.
Photo: Might it be time to pass up that slice of Christmas cake? Photograph: Sainsbury's Magazine