Dr. Robert Lustig on Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Kahuna #2: Dough sugar donut with Meat Hook hotdog (split), bacon, white miso spread, fig jam, sautéed onions (Amy Eddings/WNYC)

Dr. Robert Lustig documents the science and the politics that has led to the pandemic of chronic disease over the last 30 years. In the late 1970s the government mandated that we limit fat in our food, and the food industry responded by putting more sugar in. Dr. Lustig argues that the result has been a perfect storm, disastrously altering our biochemistry and driving our eating habits out of our control. In Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease he presents personal strategies to readjust the key hormones that regulate hunger, reward, and stress, and suggests strategies to improve the health of the next generation.


Dr. Robert Lustig

Comments [35]

Brandon from Stamford, CT

Did I mis-hear Dr Lustig? I guess I will have to have another listen.

I thought he said that glucose contains fat.

And I am having a hard time verifying that the hypothalamus signals the pancreas to release insulin. The 8 hormones produced in the hypothalamus are:

(Anterior lobe)
corticotrophin-releasing hormone
growth hormone-releasing hormone
gonadotrophin-releasing hormone
thyrotrophin-releasing hormone

(Posterior lobe)
anti-diuretic hormone (ADH)

(Lack of anti-diuretic hormone production by the hypothalamus causes diabetes insipidus-- but not Type II or even Type I diabetes!)

Everything I have read to far say the Langerhan cells of pancreatic islet cells "know" to release insulin into bloodstream in DIRECT response to increase blood glucose levels-- although there are apparently other "stimulatory factors": !several amino acids, intestinal hormones, acetylcholine (parasympathetic stimulation) and others!

Somatostatin and sympathetic stimulation (think norepinephrine) seem to be factors that inhibit insulin release.

(I got above from uc.berkeley Endocrine-Pancrease page)

Finally, I also have trouble with the entire premise of Dr Lustig's argument; namely, that this obesity epidemic (or metabolic syndrome epidemic) is a result of increased sugar consumption. It just doesn't make sense.

I believe there is a role for cortisol: higher and more constant total lifetime exposure to serum cortisol, as a result of the fraying of the social safety net in this country. The brave new turbo capitalist world we live in affords no time for "rest & digest" and, instead, we are all in a constant sympathetic state. Fix this and you will see us return to the slender and healthful lives we once enjoyed in the the 50s and 60s.

Has someone written a book about that?

Sep. 02 2013 09:07 PM
John from Brooklyn

Dr. Lustig is guilty of fear mongering and confirmation bias. He misleads the public by cherry picking data and playing fast and loose with the facts in order to promote his agenda and sell his book.

Whether or not you buy Dr. Lustig's numerous leaps of logic, I highly suggest reading Alan Aragon's critique of "Sugar: The Bitter Truth" to at least get a different perspective. Alan is an evidence-based nutritionist, which is why he is so well-respected among his peers. After Alan posted his piece, Dr. Lustig responded in the comments section, and a heated debate soon followed. Suffice it to say, Dr. Lustig did not fare well arguing his case.

The initial critique can be read here:

A summary of the debate can be read here:

Alan's critique of Dr. Lustig's 60 Minutes segment can be seen here:

Sep. 02 2013 02:15 PM
BillBarber from Toronto

The situation is even worse in some hospitals where people are being tube-fed with high sugar, corn syrup, and maltodextrin in quantities that far exceed their energy requirements especially seniors who have a lower metabolic rate and thus need fewer calories. These patients have high CO2 levels and their livers work continuously to try and process the excess calories from the sugar, etc. Their livers become diseased/fatty. They gain tremendous quantities of fat on their abdomen and eventually become extremely ill and die. The doctors are baffled and can't seem to understand what is happening. These patients have terrible bed sores that won't heal because of the heavy load from the weight gain due to fat produced and the excess glucose levels. The diseased liver is unable to maintain red blood cell production and these levels drop together with the haemoglobin levels. The lower haemogolbin levels prevent healing as well.

May. 07 2013 09:53 AM
Dr. Robert Walling from Texas

I have great respect for this man and worked with him in the past. I am a diabetic and have easily controlled my diabetes because of my knowledge of this problem.

Mar. 30 2013 04:14 PM
Kim from Brooklyn

In the past 18 months, I have lost 80 post-menopausal pounds using the Dukan Diet plan which is similar to Atkins. Although it's protein-based in Phase 2 (weight loss phase), I have learned a lot about not ingesting sugar and carbs - I sleep better and don't have constant gas. I don't miss sugar and have made sure I am eating mostly unprocessed or minimally processed food. As Michael Pollan writes: If your Great Grandmother doesn't recognize the product or if it comes in packaging, it's probably processed food. It takes time and planning, but I make my own organic meals and only dine out occasionally. I now buy my food in organic stores or farmer's markets, especially meat and fish from CSAs in Ditmas Park.

Mar. 29 2013 07:00 AM
Geoffrey from Yonkers

Great segment, thank you.

Mar. 28 2013 09:22 PM

As commented, this is not news. two issues; the increase of sedentary time due to computer(work) demands, in addition to TV-leisure passivity. Secondly, cant bring myself to eat animals, which complicates things a bit, protein-wise, but with diligence and discipline (neither of which i possess) fitness is possible.

Mar. 28 2013 03:42 PM
Valerie from New York

Sometimes I dine with friends who are distressed about their weight, and when I look at what they order, it's clear they have no idea what constitutes a healthy diet. Even at buffet lunches where nothing - including the size of the container - is out of the buyer's control, people are making poor dietary choices.

I would like to suggest that someone like Mark Bittman take instagram photos of their own balanced meals (perhaps with a ruler in the photo?)and upload them to a website, adding minimal commentary, such as the names of the foods in the photo.

I think it's entirely possible that people have no idea where to begin, and visuals, especially when given every day, might be very helpful.

Can someone make an app for this?

Mar. 28 2013 03:11 PM

The truth is, a healthy diet is a fairly boring one, so strive to be boring and you'll likely be healthy. Avoid sugar and most starches. Eat some kind of protein for breakfast but little fat. Protein and greens for lunch (plate full of mixed greens with humus, cottage cheese, tuna on top is the perfect lunch). Chicken vegetable soup with a whole-grain role. Half to 2/3 of your dinner plate should be covered with broccoli or cabbage, spinach, carrots, cooked in water with nothing on it (no butter, cheese, sauce) and protein (chicken or fish) on 1/4 of the plate. Snack on dry roasted almonds. A piece of fruit after dinner. Boring but healthy. Exercise at least three times a week. Don't drink alcohol and don't smoke. It's really so boring, but it's true. The simplicity makes it easy to follow, once you overcome resistance.

Mar. 28 2013 02:12 PM
Karen from New Jersey

Dang you, Mr Lopate, you've made me buy another book!

Great segment, packed with great information. Please thank Dr. Lustig for his insite and caring.

Mar. 28 2013 02:11 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Tha National Weight Control Registry ( keeps track of people who have lost at least 30 lb. & kept it off for at least a year, to learn what has worked for them. Anyone meeting that description can join & help others learn what works long-term.

Mar. 28 2013 02:06 PM

Drag in any unrelated "hobby horse" issue you want -

"Doesn't George Zimmerman, the person responsible for "Massacre" Treyvon Martin, own a lot of shares in the "corn fructose syrup" industry?"

Mar. 28 2013 02:04 PM
Deborah Silver from Westchester

Mr. Lustig's comments/thoughts on the 5:2 eating plan? Normal healthy eating 5 days a week, low calorie (500 cal for women, 600 for men) 2 days a week? For weight loss.

Mar. 28 2013 01:57 PM
judy from nyc

Is weekly fasting beneficial?

Mar. 28 2013 01:56 PM
rycore from Windsor Terrace

Menopause is causing weight around my waist. Is this the same fat that is dangerous?

Mar. 28 2013 01:55 PM
molly from ny

if you had to eat only 5 items a day, what would you recommend

Mar. 28 2013 01:54 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Carbohydrates were great when people actually worked "by the sweat of their brows" and the carbs supplied the energy. But now that people do not work up a sweat, carb intake mostly ends up as body fat.

I've been on the Atkins regimen since 1997 and it definitely kept my fat down, UNTIL very recently when I turned 65. Now my belly has grown without a change in the diet, which I assume means that my metabolism has slowed down, like everything else getting weaker and slower.

Mar. 28 2013 01:49 PM
TimB from New York

What role does alcohol play in fat accumulation?

Mar. 28 2013 01:44 PM

sugar turns to fat into the body. carbohydrates turn to sugar in the body. obviously one of the best preventative methods to avoid being obese is to lower your over all carbohydrates to your activity level. Win for Dr.Atkins again

Mar. 28 2013 01:43 PM
Orla from Manhattan

How is it that people can be thin and diabetic given the dynamic Dr. Lustig described whereby excess insulin leads to fat/weight gain?

Mar. 28 2013 01:42 PM
rey from nyc

..eating fruit is way better than drinking fruit juice)

Mar. 28 2013 01:41 PM

Does the doctor find any correlation between the unannounced entry of GMO corn, soy, etc. into the processed food industry?

Mar. 28 2013 01:40 PM

Cows do not graze on corn. They are not evolved to digest it!

Mar. 28 2013 01:40 PM
rey from nyc

Sugar is sugar is sugar in terms of how the body responds insulin-wise, although some sugars are digested slower. Fruit varies but in general is very high in sugar. Check sugar grams in food charts!

Mar. 28 2013 01:40 PM

The first time I heard the term Metabolic Syndrome was 1995 and it was from Dr. Atkins

Mar. 28 2013 01:38 PM
martin from Brooklyn

Are the sugars in fruits ok? I've heard that fruit is being bred to be ever sweeter.

Mar. 28 2013 01:37 PM
Matt from Brooklyn

Are large amounts of "natural" sugar (such as that found in fruit) as harmful as processed sugar?

Mar. 28 2013 01:37 PM
Jen from Brooklyn

When Dr. Lustig refers to sugar, does he differentiate between white processed sugar and natural sugars found in fruit? Does quantity consumed matter more than the type/source of sugar?

Mar. 28 2013 01:36 PM
rey from nyc

Dear Leonard, you have misaunderstood-

There is no ADDED sugar in potato chips... the white potato inherently has high sugar content.

Mar. 28 2013 01:36 PM

Very scientific "flavor of the moment"
(even though Dr. Lustig's explanation happens to be personally appealing to me).

" With Americans eating increasing quantities of cheap and abundant food, scientists sounded the alarm. “It is clear that weight control is a major public health problem,” Dr. Lester Breslow, a leading researcher, warned at the annual meeting of the western branch of the American Public Health Association (APHA). At the national meeting of the APHA later that year, experts called obesity “America’s No. 1 health problem.”

"The year was 1952. There was exactly one McDonald’s in all of America, an entire six-pack of Coca-Cola contained fewer ounces of soda than a single Super Big Gulp today, and less than 10 percent of the population was obese. . . . "

Mar. 28 2013 01:32 PM

Please ask him to assess Dr. Atkins life's work.

Mar. 28 2013 01:32 PM
Larry from Paterson, NJ

I'll give you my fructose when you pry it from my cold, syrupy hands!

Mar. 28 2013 01:29 PM

This is not new information.

As a long time Dr.Atkins supporter, all of this is in his many books. He started screaming about this in the 1970's and keep repeating this mantra until he died. I know, I know, Dr. Atkins was the bacon and no bun burger doctor. If the media would have actually read his books they would have realized that his diet was phased based. Starting out tough and strict and then gradually incorporating more foods to establish a scientific approach to finding what foods and carb level one could tolerate. the Maintenance Plan (the last phase of his diet which was life long) is exactly what all these scientists keep finding out. We should be eating Vegetables (greens preferably), Nuts (raw), Some Grains and whole grains at the very least while he pushed alternatives (Quinoa), Fruit - sparingly (nature's candy), Meats (organic and preferably grass fed when eating beef), Seafood, Dairy (Organic and grass fed - also based on whether one is allergic) are the tenants of his diet, while he preached avoidance of ALL processed sugars, flours/grains, high glycemic carbs, sugary drinks, etc.

All his detractors had a simple minded view of what he was talking about because it was revolutionary and they didnt understand. Now we do. He should receive a post humous Noble Peace Prize.

Mar. 28 2013 12:53 PM

A nice reminder of the book a few years back by a previous NIH or CDC director which presented the same processed food recipe "mix" of sugar, fat & salt. Was it Dr. Keen?

Mar. 28 2013 10:47 AM
Stephanie from NYC

Definitely on point, but nothing the alternative health movement hasn't been saying for decades.

Mar. 28 2013 09:31 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.