Sugar: A Spotlight on Glucotoxicity


One of the big health discussions in the news this week is about a story which aired on 60 Minutes Sunday.  Popular medical journalist Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviewed Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of clinical pediatrics and endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco.  Dr. Lustig says that sugar in any form is responsible for many of the illnesses plaguing Americans, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and even cancer.  Through the treatment of his own patients, sick and obese children, Dr. Lustig concludes, “sugar is toxic.”

That headline struck a nerve with viewers and sparked a conversation in the medical community.  While sugar and the negative impact on our health is certainly no stranger to press, this particular story has brought the attention on our lifestyles and how the decisions we are making are not only affecting our health down the road as adults, but more immediately in children today. 

Oklahoma Heart Institute Endocrinologist, Dr. Ralph Duda Jr. echoes the boldness of Dr. Lustig’s statement, as well as the immediacy to address this problem now, “I am in complete agreement with Dr. Lustig.  Our population at large and the currently operating socio-economic and cultural norms have led to a prevailing high carbohydrate/high starch diet.  This has led to an astronomical increase in obesity – the so-called diabesity epidemic”.  Dr. Duda further explains why these unhealthy diets and lifestyles directly impact our chances for developing heart disease and cancer, “Excessive calories in carbohydrates and fats consumed but not used are stored in fat cells.  When fat cells become overburdened with stored energy, they secrete substances, or cytokines, that contribute to vascular injury, inflammation, thrombosis, dysfunction, enhanced atherosclerosis, and premature coronary heart disease.  Further, these substances, with increasing weight gain, co-promote insulin resistance, stressing the natural glucose-insulin-insulin receptor relationship such that hyperinsulinemia results, compounding further weigh gain and salt/water handling in the kidney, giving rise to hypertension, an additional serious risk factor to cardiac functional integrity.”

Our Sugar Consumption: At a Glance

With the average American consuming 22.2 teaspoons of added sugar a day, that is more than four times the recommended amount by the American Heart Association (5 teaspoons for women, 7.5 teaspoons for men, 3 teaspoons for children).  For adults, that is the equivalent of almost one can of soda.  However, cutting down on sugar intake is not as simple as drinking water instead of a can of soda.  Sugar and all its forms are prevalent throughout the packaged foods we eat.

Sugar is not just “sugar “seen on the packages of food labels.  Sugar can be found in any of the following:  Brown-rice syrup, corn sweetener, corn syrup, or corn syrup solids, cane Juice, dehydrated cane juice, dextrin, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltodextrin, malt syrup, maltose, mannitol, maple syrup, molasses, raw sugar, saccharose, sorbitol, sorghum or sorghum syrup, sucrose, treacle, turbinado sugar, and xylose.  Check the labels of some of your favorite foods, and you may be surprised sugar (in one of its forms) is one of the main ingredients.

Some of these words have been getting bad press for years and are on our radar when choosing packaged foods at the grocery store.  However, some of these publically believed to be the “healthier sugars” like honey and brown rice syrup are, according to Dr. Lustig in the interview, as much a part of the problem as the ones we may have been trying to avoid, like high-fructose corn syrup.     

Be Proactive: Know Risk Factors and Warning Signs

One of the most important things you can do for your health today is to educate yourself and understand the risk factors and warning signs for heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, and diabetes.  25 million adults and children in American have been diagnosed with diabetes.  40 percent of the US population is either overweight or obese.   An estimated 7 million people live with diabetes and don’t know it.   Many of the warning signs for diabetes or prediabetes either go unnoticed or are not given proper attention by a physician.  Type 2 diabetes symptoms may be nonexistent or may include certain infections, blurred vision, non-healing cuts, tingling or numbness in the hands or feet, and increased thirst or urination. 

Knowing the risk factors for heart disease and heart attack can help identify necessary changes in lifestyle.  Risk factors include: high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels  and low HDL (good cholesterol), diabetes, smoking, lack of regular exercise, reduced fruit & vegetable intake, or a family history of a first-degree relative with premature heart disease (male below 55 years old, female below 65 years old).

Additionally, life-saving screenings offer fast, accurate, and painless methods for taking a preventative approach to your health.  Oklahoma Heart Institute offers several life-saving screening to the public; physician referrals are not required.  For more information on screenings available and to schedule an appointment, click here.