Monday, 1 December 2014

Review: Sweet Poison, by David Gillespie

Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat is an investigation into why societies in Australia, the USA and the UK have become as unhealthy as they have. After all, our bodies have been designed after millions of years of evolution to control our energy intake so that we can function optimally. Yet, more and more people are becoming and remaining overweight and unhealthy, with their bodies no longer able to function as optimally as they once could. What has caused this obesity epidemic?

This is the question David Gillespie explores in Sweet Poison, which was inspired by his own personal experience of finding himself 40kg overweight despite having tried, and failed, many diets. After much research, Gillespie's answer to this question lies with sugar; specifically fructose which is a component of sugar. Gillespie's conclusion is that we are simply consuming far too much fructose, which is converted to circulating fat, causing many of the cardio-vascular diseases (CVDs) which people are becoming more and more diagnosed with.

How has this happened? Gillespie explains by saying,
'[F]ructose bypasses all of our appetite-control systems and jumps a critical step in our metabolism that would ordinarily stop our arteries from filling up with circulating fat. Eating fat still puts fat in our arteries, but we have a built-in control to stop us eating too much fat. No such control exists for fructose.'
Sounds too simple to be true? Well, admittedly I'm not a biology or digestion expert, but Gillespie's preceding chapters detail how fructose molecules end up bypassing the controls which tell our brain that we have had enough to eat.

The exception to this rule is when fructose is present in forms which contain fibre, such as whole pieces of fruit. Fibre lets our brains know that we are eating food, so you usually don't end up eating the food containing it in excess. Therefore it's important for fruit to be eaten in the forms it comes in, rather than in juiced versions, so that we don't consume it in excess. Otherwise it just ends up bypassing our controls which tell us we are full.

For example, while most people feel satisfied after eating one apple, they can easily drink one glass of juice (or more) since the latter contains much less fibre than what the former does. One glass of apple juice is the equivalent of four apples, thus containing four times the amount of fructose your body should consume at the one time. The excess fructose ends up being converted to circulating fat, making our blood more sticky and hence our bodies more susceptible to CVDs if such habits are continually repeated over time. So while you may feel healthy by drinking a glass of fruit juice, the reality is that you are probably consuming more fructose than your body needs, making it a less healthy alternative than what you may have originally thought.

This last point is also important as Gillespie emphasises that your body can't actually tell the difference between fructose that comes from fruit and fructose that comes in other forms (such as food containing table sugar). So, even if you do manage to eat four whole apples in a day, your body won't necessarily benefit from it as that excess sugar will simply be converted to circulating fat anyway. Therefore there really is no such thing as good sugar. Unfortunately there are no requirements for food labels to specify the amount of fructose contained in items of food, making it even more difficult for people to know how much they are consuming to better control their intake. Fortunately Gillespie provides some handy advice to help with this.

Gillespie also goes into the history of sugar production and the subsequent diet-related diseases that have evolved in the past 60-odd years. He delves into the dangers of consuming artificial sweeteners, many of which may be legal in some countries (like the US) but illegal in others (like the UK). He also points out the irony of governments investing millions of dollars in managing the effects of over-consuming fructose, instead of investing in the causes of the health issues in the first place. As Gillespie mentions, CVD prevention isn't particularly sexy for marketers to get onto the bandwagon of. But hey, if more awareness was able to be made about the dangers of smoking, then maybe there's hope for us yet with fructose.

Much of this may sound like doom and gloom, but I found it all fascinating. While many of the bio-chemical reactions Gillespie goes through went over my head, his discussion is still engaging and intriguing enough to sustain even the most biology-phobic of people.

At the same time I think it's important not to consider the messages of this book in isolation from other good nutritional information we are already aware of. Particularly as Gillespie pretty much promises that if you give up fructose then you will be guaranteed to lose weight. In fact, that was one of my biggest criticisms of the book - Gillespie's overemphasis on losing weight, rather than placing more focus on an overall healthy diet so that your body is healthy and so that you can live a good quality of life. Thus Gillespie's denunciation of exercise and lack of emphasis on other healthy eating habits really bothered me.

Nevertheless, if you take Gillespie's advice as less of a prescriptive diet guaranteed to make you lose weight, and more of an interesting perspective into an area of your diet you may have been neglecting then I think you'll get a lot out of it. Happy healthier eating!

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