Story transcripts

Sweet Poison

Friday, June 8, 2012

Reporter: Allison Langdon
Producer: Jo Townsend

For years, we've been warned about the evils of fat.

We've checked what's in our food, cut out the cheese and sworn off the fries.

Well, it turns out we've been way off target.

Controversial new research suggests that the real enemy is sugar.

And this stuff isn't just making us fat, it's slowly killing us.

Tens of thousands of Australians are already suffering serious health problems due to sugar overload.

But, as Allison Langdon discovered, what's truly alarming is that this sweet poison is as addictive as the hardest of illicit drugs.

PHOTOS: The Bitter Truth

For more information go to:

The Glycemic Index —

Sarah Wilson's 'I Quit Sugar' e-book —

Dr Robert Lustig is a Pediatric Endocrinologist at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital
View his lecture, The Bitter Truth

Allison Langdon's brain scan was conducted here.

Our thanks to the Robert and Beverly Lewis Center for NeuroImaging at the University of Oregon.

Full Transcript

ALLISON LANGDON: Aimee Gibbs is a busy wife, and mother of three energetic girls in country NSW. For as long as she can remember, the 33-year-old has struggled with her weight. She binged on anything that was laden with sugar. How bad was your diet?

AIMEE: It was shocking, it was disgusting. The amount of sugar that I would consume on a daily basis was unbelievable.

ALLISON LANGDON: How much are we talking about?

AIMEE: We’re talking probably at least 4L of ice-cream a week, and probably about seven to eight blocks of chocolate, and that’s easy done.

ALLISON LANGDON: Is that hard to admit that?

AIMEE: Yes, it’s very hard to admit that I am the way I am because I ate so much sugar.

ALLISON LANGDON: Aimee would go on diets, thinking too much fat was the problem. But she just got fatter and sicker, battling headaches and nausea. It turned out fat wasn’t the issue. Aimee was eating way too much sugar for her body to handle. She had a serious medical condition called metabolic syndrome.

AIMEE: It can now lead to type 2 diabetes, pancreatic cancer, heart disease and liver disease. So it’s quite scary when you’ve got a young family and you think that, you know, in 12 months’ time I could die of a heart attack.

ALLISON LANGDON: And you have no doubt that sugar was the root of all of those problems?

AIMEE: No doubt at all, no doubt at all.

ALLISON LANGDON: The fact is most of us have no idea how much sugar we consume. Well, on average, it is 45kg of sugar, per Australian, every year. When you see it like this, it is scary.

ROBERT: It is chronically poisonous, and we are overdosed. That’s what it comes down to.

ALLISON LANGDON: And what’s it doing to us?

ROBERT: It’s killing us. Slowly, but killing us.

ALLISON LANGDON: Dr Robert Lustig is an American endocrinologist who has single-handedly started a revolution - declaring that sugar has replaced fat as the new dietary evil.

ROBERT: Sugar is not good for us in any way, shape or form. You know, we need fats. We need fats for brain growth. Fats are essential and we have essential fatty acids that we must take in but sugar is way bigger problem than fat ever was, that I can tell you.

ALLISON LANGDON: You’re taking everything we’ve learnt about healthy eating over the last 30 years and turned it upside down.

ROBERT: And it deserves to be turned upside down, because it didn’t work, did it?

JENNIE: His focus on sugars, and sugars alone, is a dangerous message - an ineffective message - a message that might backfire.

ALLISON LANGDON: Not everyone is a convert to the Lustig doctrine. Professor Jennie Brand Miller from Sydney University argues we should cut down on all bad foods - and that just picking on sugar, and sugar alone, is unfair and unhelpful.

JENNIE: He says it’s a poison. He uses those very emotive words - toxic and poison - and he does that deliberately because that attracts headlines.

ALLISON LANGDON: Are you just a headline-grabber?

ROBERT: I hope not. I’m trying not to be. It’s about the message, not the messenger . I don’t want it to be about me.

ALLISON LANGDON: Is the message getting through?

ROBERT: I think the message is out there. I think people are listening to it.

ALLISON LANGDON: So you’ve been sugar-free for, how long now?

SARAH: It’s about 15 months

ALLISON LANGDON: Do you miss it?

SARAH: I don’t really.

ALLISON LANGDON: Sarah Wilson needs no convincing about the scourge of sugar. The former editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine - turned blogger - had been feeling lethargic and run-down, so she went on an eight-week trial, without the sweet white powder. Since going cold turkey, Sarah’s never looked back.

SARAH: I quit sugar as something of an experiment. It was kind of this nagging feeling in the back of my head that it may have been causing some of my health issues, my energy issues. Sugar is a hidden, insidious and seductive danger.

ALLISON LANGDON: So how long have you been surfing?

SARAH: Only about a year, since I’ve been up here.

ALLISON LANGDON: In addition to her new, sugar-free lease-on-life, Sarah has left behind the stresses of city living. She has never felt better.

SARAH: I’m extremely aware that the no-sugar mantra sounds like a fad diet, it sounds like one of those annoying fad diets you know?

ALLISON LANGDON: Is that it though? We’ve had no-fat, we had no-carbs, now we’re being told no-sugar.

SARAH: Oh I know, I know. I hate the whole diet bandwagon that people get onto. It’s not a fad diet, it just isn’t - eating no sugar essentially cuts out the crap, it cuts out all processed foods. It cuts out all the stuff that’s problematic, whatever way you want to look at it.

ERIC: So lay your head down underneath these beverage tubes.

ALLISON LANGDON: But for some, kicking the sugar habit can be as hard as conquering a serious drug addiction. Landmark research by neuropsychologist

Dr Eric Stice, at the University of Oregon, has revealed the addictive kick that sugar gives our brain.

ERIC: When you get the Coke just hold it in your mouth until you see the word ‘swallow’.

ALLISON LANGDON: Okay, I’m ready. As I sip Coca-Cola from a specially wired tube, Dr Stice and his team measure changes in my brain activity. That’s really sweet. Incredibly, my pleasure-receptors respond in much the same way as if I’d taken illicit drugs.

ERIC: What this illustrates nicely is that it activates the same reward circuitry that is activated when people do drugs of abuse, so cocaine, or marijuana or something like that.

ALLISON LANGDON: So sugar has the same effect on my brain as cocaine and other illegal drugs?

ERIC: Yep.

ALLISON LANGDON: And Dr Stice has found sugar can be just as addictive. Once in the vicious cycle of eating too much of it, our brains become programmed to want more and more.

ERIC: The more you consume sugar, the less rewards you get from sugar, and the more you escalate your sugar intake.

ALLISON LANGDON: Does it sit comfortably with you saying sugar is worse than cocaine?

ERIC: In terms of morbidity and mortality, sugar kills way more people than any psychoactive drug.

ALLISON LANGDON: This is the devil-aisle.

AIMEE: This is where all the yummy stuff is.

ALLISON LANGDON: There’s no doubt Aimee Gibbs was hooked on sugar, but she just had to quit. It was a matter of life or death. So you don’t even look over here anymore, at all the soft drink?

AIMEE: No, no. Only for special occasions – birthday parties, things like that. Otherwise it just doesn’t happen. Doesn’t go into the trolley anymore.

ALLISON LANGDON: Aimee’s body simply couldn’t process all the sugar or fructose that she was consuming. Fructose was forming a dangerous layer of fat around her liver. Metabolic syndrome meant her body was shutting down, while her weight kept climbing.

AIMEE: It terrified me to think that I had lived for so long depending on sugar basically to get me through my day, when at the end of the day it could actually be killing me.

ALLISON LANGDON: Since you’ve quit sugar, how much weight have you lost?

AIMEE: I’ve lost about 26kg in about 12 months.

ALLISON LANGDON: So you’re now able to run around with the girls?

AIMEE: Yeah. Yeah, which is good. I think one comment was “Mum, I’ve never seen you run so fast,” and I thought, that’s ok, I’m only going to get quicker. Jess, what would you like on your sandwich, darl?

JESS: Devon.

ALLISON LANGDON: And it is weight-loss success stories like Aimee’s that encourage Dr Lustig in his quest to turn dieting upside-down. Against all the conventional wisdom, he maintains we no longer need to fear fats - the very thing we’ve been obsessing about for years.

ROBERT: Fat is not the devil, and it never was.

ALLISON LANGDON: If I was sitting here with a double beef burger dripping with cheese in one hand and a big soft drink in the other, which one is worse for me?

ROBERT: Oh, the soft drink without a question. Without question, without question.

ALLISON LANGDON: I mean, there will be nutritionists out there, hearing you say that, who will be pulling their hair out.

ROBERT: Absolutely, and they need to go back to dietary school.

JENNIE: His message is out on a limb. He’s the one out on a limb, not me. I am saying a moderate intake of sugars and I define a moderate amount of sugars – added sugars – ten teaspoons a day in a typical diet - is something that is a safe and healthy diet.

ALLISON LANGDON: Do you think your view is a little extreme?

ROBERT: Of course it’s extreme, but it’s based on science. The bottom line is we have a public health crisis today that we have to deal with and the science says this is where we should go.

ALLISON LANGDON: Certainly Sarah Wilson is spreading the word. Through her blog she’s so far convinced more than 30,000 other Australians to kick their sugar habit - but not their love of food.

SARAH: I’m eating like our grandparents and great grandparents used to eat, you know, before all these diseases. It’s simple, it’s no-brainer food, I’m not complicating, I’m not cutting this out, cutting out that. I’m just not eating sugar.

ALLISON LANGDON: Sugar’s natural though.

SARAH: Sugar’s natural, but so is arsenic and so is petroleum. It doesn’t mean we’re meant to eat it.

ALLISON LANGDON: So life’s sweeter without sugar?

SARAH: Life is a lot sweeter without, sweeter and clearer. And kind of nicer. I’m a nicer person without sugar.

ALLISON LANGDON: And we might all be going without a lot less sugar if some health campaigners get their way. Around the world, they’re pushing for the sale of sugar to be heavily restricted - in much the same way that we regulate alcohol and cigarettes.

ROBERT: This is a battle, in fact it’s a war. Because ultimately, what’s good for the food industry is bad for us, and what’s good for us is bad for them.

ALLISON LANGDON: Will you win it?

ROBERT: Of course we’ll win it. We have to win it, we have no choice but to win it.

AIMEE: Looks good, yum yummy!

ALLISON LANGDON: Today, the war has been well and truly won in the Gibbs household. There’s barely a sugary treat in sight. So when you get a treat, what’s your favourite food?

JESS: Chocolate.

ALLISON LANGDON: That’s mine too. Aimee will need to manage her condition for the rest of her life, but it’s a small sacrifice considering what might have been.

AIMEE: There’s people that say chocolate makes you happy - have a piece of chocolate, it makes you happy. It does make you happy, for a little while, but it doesn’t make you happy forever.

ALLISON LANGDON: Do you love now the thought that you will be around to see your daughters grow up, get married and have babies?

AIMEE: Yeah, it’s nice to know that hopefully everything will still go the way it’s supposed to go and I’ll be there to watch all of it – which will be good.

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