"The Case Against Sugar" Is a Weak One

If you came across a book or article about diet and nutrition called “You’re Doing Everything Right,” you probably wouldn’t read it, would you?  Sadly, when it comes to food and health, readers love the simplicity of a good, quick fix, regardless of whether there is any real science behind the story. Unfortunately, Gary Taubes’ The Case Against Sugar is more story than science.   

Taubes is a respected journalist and an expert in physics, but he’s not a registered dietitian, nutritionist or health professional. (What is it about dietary advice and journalists, anyway?) Nevertheless, he is one of the most prominent crusaders against sugar. That’s in spite of—or maybe because of—you guessed it: bad science, alarmism, and quick fixes.

Where does Taubes get it right? Sugar is a source of calories that nutrition experts recommend we limit in our diets and currently, Americans eat more sugar than is recommended. Our bodies are best served by nutrient-dense diets that have the right balance of protein, fats, carbohydrates, and micronutrients we need to be healthy. Taubes also offers an interesting and exhaustive history of sugar's introduction into Western Hemisphere trade and, eventually, our diets.

But when it comes to what he gets wrong, we could fill a book of our own.

Let’s start with his rhetoric. Taubes characterizes sugar as "uniquely toxic," "the principal cause of the chronic diseases that are most likely to kill us," and "the prime culprit" in the diseases that kill us prematurely.

He ratchets up the rhetoric in an interview promoting his book with the noted anti-vaxxer and anti-mammogram Joe Mercola, calling sugar “the primary evil in our diets.” Everyone loves a good villain story, apparently, but the science simply doesn't support these overheated statements—which Taubes himself essentially concedes elsewhere in the book. Nowhere does he mention food components for which there is much stronger scientific consensus about their potential health impacts, such as partially hydrogenated oils (i.e. trans fats).

Interestingly, as Daniel Engber points out in his own review of the book in The Atlantic, Taubes established an institute whose very first study appeared to undercut his own case against sugar and carbs. "In other words," as Engber writes, "[Taubes] hasn’t budged—at least not yet."

Taubes also says that “sugar has killed more people than tobacco,” but offers little to back up this inflammatory claim aside from cherry-picked science and tenuous analogies. Taubes, as a self-proclaimed ex-smoker, seems to have an interest bordering on obsession with equating sugar to tobacco. “There is clearly enough evidence to indict sugar as the single prominent environmental trigger of disease,” he says—after he has already documented the deadly role of tobacco, for which the evidence is far more compelling.

Sugars are found in abundance in nature. They’re also added to foods. Whether natural or added, they’re safely metabolized by our bodies and used for energy. The latest set of Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting the amount of added sugars we eat to less than 10% of total calories.

Cigarette smoking, on the other hand—even secondhand—is unsafe at any level. Equating the two might be fashionable, and it might sell books. But it’s a dangerous and demonstrably false message.

Taubes takes it as an article of faith that sugar is “toxic” and “addictive,” and that believing so makes you a “rational human being.” Aside from a few non-mainstream voices, that definitely is not the scientific consensus.

Taubes also advocates “getting rid of all the carbs” and says he’s “not sure of any grain that’s good for you.” These statements are so ridiculous that it’s hard to know where to begin, so instead you can read what we’ve written about whole grains.

If there is one thing experience has taught us, it’s that demonizing or fixating on avoiding a single nutrient, ingredient or source of calories, isn’t as helpful as some would have you believe. (Taubes himself admits that the backlash in the 1980s against dietary fats may have contributed to increased consumption of sugars in the 1990’s.) All it does is further confuse consumers and encourages unhealthy relationships with food based on fear instead of facts.

Or, as Daniel Engberg puts it, "[T]he research on nutrition—ample and diverse though it’s been—isn’t close to dispositive. We can’t prove the case against sugar, and we can’t prove the case against that case, either. Taubes knows this as well as anyone."

The best advice for a healthy eating pattern hasn’t changed: Enjoy a balanced diet (with the appropriate amount of calories and nutrients) without extreme restriction or avoidance. Sugar doesn’t have to be eliminated for your diet to be considered healthy. It should, however, be limited and can be part of a healthy eating pattern.

It might not sell many books, but it will serve you well in the long run.

Kris Sollid, RD, the IFIC Foundation’s director of nutrition communications, contributed to this blog post.
 

Additional Resources:

Making Sense of Sugars

What’s an Added Sugar?

Making Sense of Added Sugars Labeling

Evaluating Scientific Evidence

Understanding, Evaluating, and Communicating Nutrition, Part II: Accurate Research Reporting

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