One of the world’s most silent killers is also one of our most favorite things to consume: sugar. According to the World Health Organization, problems with blood sugar kill nearly four million people a year. It’s no wonder that health experts are calling on each of us to wage war on the sweet stuff.
If there is a war on sugar, then it’s safe to say that we’re currently losing. The number of people suffering from diabetes has nearly doubled since 1980, heading toward 450 million globally. That is not including the roughly 18 million people in the UK alone that are pre-diabetic.
So why do people continue to undermine the effects sugar really has? The truth is, most people view diabetes as an abstract problem—not truly understanding the devastating impacts it can have on life until it’s too late. Here’s how it works: when sugar enters the bloodstream, the body releases insulin from the pancreas as a response. Insulin communicates that it is time for the muscle cells to start mopping up and using blood glucose. Ignoring elevated blood sugar can lead to inflammatory responses that ultimately cause damage to veins and arteries, leading to heart disease, blindness, and even amputation.
One in every 20 diabetics is born with type 1 diabetes, meaning their body does not produce insulin. To maintain proper body function, they have to inject artificially produced insulin to keep their blood sugar down. In contrast, people with type 2 diabetes develop a resistance to signals from insulin and blood glucose levels remain elevated unless artificial measures interfere. Type 2 diabetes is more likely to stem from a genetic predisposition—if your mother and father both have type 2 diabetes, your risk of developing it increases by 75 percent.
Though this is a growing genetic problem, the evidence supports the idea that this illness stems from high sugar intake. Diabetes was rare until the world began consuming more sugar. The biggest case study for this is in Africa. In the 1920s in Kenya and Uganda, diabetes was extraordinarily rare in the population, which consumed a low-sugar and high-fat diet. By 1970, every big city had a large diabetic clinic, thanks to a newly Westernized East African diet.
Frederick Madison Allen of Harvard Medical School was one of the first researchers to understand the link between sugar and the illness.
“It is generally recognized that diabetes is increasing, and to a considerable extent, its incidence is greatest among the races and the classes of society that consume most sugar,” he wrote in 1913. This claim was quickly protested by the sugar industry and all who profit from it. The battle back and forth has created massive public confusion—to the benefit of those that continue to produce sweets. It’s no wonder that our world’s sugar addiction has been compared to a slow-motion car crash.
Today, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that one in three Americans will have diabetes by 2030. The International Diabetes Federation predicts one in ten adults will have diabetes worldwide in the same timeline. So why isn’t the government acting immediately? It’s an economic issue; the sugar industry has simply gotten too big to fail. That, coupled with the fact that the science has never been conclusive enough to convince those who don’t want to believe it for ideological reasons.
Some argue that sugar is perhaps as addictive as tobacco. Interestingly, the sugar business has been arguably more successful than the tobacco industry. As Taubes notes, sugar as “assimilated itself into all aspects of our eating experience.” It’s in bread, ice cream, fruit juice, energy drinks, and even canned foods—a change that we’ve seen over the past few decades.
“It was as though the food industry had decided en masse…that if a product wasn’t sweetened at least a little, our modern palates would reject it,” Taubes added.
As common as this ingredient is, it’s important to note that consequences are common as. There are 20 diabetes-related amputations, 500 heart attacks, and 400 deaths from cardiovascular disease in the UK all linked to sugar.
Are you addicted to sugar?