For the last half a century or more we have believed the dietary cholesterol theory about heart disease, a hypothesis (idea to be tested by experiment) that found favor with researchers, grant makers, doctors and drug makers. What if this theory is wrong? What if cholesterol in artery walls has less to do with dietary fat than with the way the body processes carbohydrates? What if refined sugars and grains are the dietary culprits? Could insulin, the master hormone at the center of all energy processing, be a better marker than cholesterol for heart disease?
What is blood sugar?
The first thing to understand about sugar is that the blood sugar is not the same thing as the sugar in your pantry. Or the sugar in soft drinks or the sugar in fresh fruit. Blood sugar is a simple molecule called glucose – a product of plants’ ability to convert the energy of the sun into starches, long chains of glucose linked together. When you eat a starch, the digestion process breaks down the chains into simple glucose molecules which circulate in your blood. Glucose is used by every cell in the body for energy, and is also made into glycogen for storage in liver and muscle.The sugar in your pantry is sucrose extracted from plants, specifically cane grasses and beets, by a refining process that concentrates and crystallizes it. Each sucrose molecule is a combination of one glucose molecule with another of fructose, a chemically different plant sugar molecule.
The taste for sweetness is innate and possibly addictive. Before the advent of refined sugar, indulging the sweet tooth was difficult. The only edible sources were berries and fruits and small amounts of honey guarded by nasty bees – all confined by climate and geography. Sugar made its way into the human diet slowly, spreading from the East to the West as the secret of this “liquid gold” made its way along routes of commerce.
Sugar and the diseases of civilization
With time and commerce, consumption of sugar and refined grains skyrocketed. The diseases of civilization – diabetes, heart disease and obesity – followed refined sugar, flour and rice around the world, appearing wherever old dietary staples were replaced by these “white” foods. By the 1920s, the Americans averaged 110-120 pounds of sugar per person per year. We inched up to 124 pounds by the late 1970s. Then came the Japanese chemical innovation that made high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) a dietary staple. By 2000, HFCS bumped sugar consumption up to 150 lbs. per year, largely in the form of sweetened drinks.
High fructose corn syrup
HFCS differs from sucrose because the ratio of fructose to glucose in corn syrup is 10% higher than in table sugar – 55:45 instead of 50:50. Some scientists believe that it is the remarkable increase in fructose consumption in modern times that correlates with the appearance of the metabolic syndrome – abdominal obesity, high fasting blood sugar, high triglycerides, abnormal lipoprotein levels and high blood pressure. If so, a 10% increase in fructose combined with a recent, large jump in overall sugar consumption may spell real trouble.
How can fructose cause trouble? Isn’t it the primary sugar of fruits? Yes, but eating an apple with a small amount of fructose combined with absorption-slowing fiber hardly nudges blood sugar up – a far cry from the blood sugar spike after 20 ounces of an HFCS sweetened beverage. Drink a coke, and about 60% of the glucose in the HFCS goes directly into the blood for immediate use, and 40 % into the liver for storage as glycogen. The fructose all goes to the liver for conversion into fat – released into the blood as triglycerides. The higher the fructose in the diet, the higher the triglycerides in the blood. Fructose is a “lipogenic” or fat-producing sugar, and long term consumption also raises LDL or bad cholesterol.
The problems with too much sugar
Once sugar consumption exceeds the small amounts nature provides without refining techniques, trouble begins. The different ways the body processes fructose and glucose combine to produce very efficient fat production. A rise in blood glucose prompts the pancreas to put out insulin to help ferry glucose into cells for energy use or storage. Insulin, like fructose, is “lipogenic” because it helps move fats into storage depots in three areas – the liver, fat tissue, and the walls of arteries. And as triglycerides are formed from fructose, insulin busies itself shuttling them around the liver and out into the blood. The pancreas then produces even more insulin to take care of the glucose – this is the phenomenon known as insulin resistance, part of the metabolic syndrome associated with heart disease.
Is it the cholesterol or the sugar?
The theory that cholesterol in dietary fat is the direct cause of cholesterol deposits in arteries requires a leap over the metabolic pathways that process simple sugars and are intimately involved in fat formation and storage – and over the fact that many people with low cholesterol levels have heart disease. Over the last half century, many researchers and doctors made the leap because they believed the theory. Just as important to widespread acceptance, though, were less scientific influences like the cheap availability of a test for blood cholesterol, the difficulty and expense of measuring insulin, and the dominance of researchers devoted to the dietary cholesterol theory over those who questioned it.
Medical history books contain an embarrassing array of once-unassailable theories and practices that have fallen by the wayside. Despite a modern sense of scientific invincibility, current medical ideas are not immune from error. Sugar and refined carbohydrates are not yet the poster children for the scourge of heart disease, but they may be a far better target than cholesterol. If the dietary fat theory gives way to the sugar theory, the massive push to lower cholesterol by diet and drugs may go into the books as one of those once-unassailable ideas that eventually fell.