When Dr. Yudkin speaks about our ancestors’ dietary habits, he understands full well that sweet foods have always been appreciated. Our love of sweetness is probably instinctive, and for long centuries people found ample satisfaction in fruits, berries, and some vegetables. Eastern Mediterranean peoples in biblical times used honey as an added sweetener, and prized it so highly that Canaan, the promised land of the Israelites, was lauded as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Even today, you can hear honey praised as the finest of tastes in countless popular songs that speak of “kisses like honey” or “ lips like honey.” Honey has lost none of its appeals. When Asian sugarcane was introduced into Europe in the Middle Ages, it was so rare and costly that druggists sold it sometimes for medicinal purposes at prices only the rich could afford.
Unfortunately, modern technology and big business have turned sugar and sugar products from a luxury to a commonplace. In doing so, as Dr. Yudkin says, they have distorted our natural diet and adversely affected the health of whole nations. Americans consume an average of two pounds of sugar per person every week. Taken out of the natural foods in which it exists side by side with vitamins, minerals, and roughage (fiber), most of that sugar comes to us in the form of refined, white table sugar.
Richer nations like America consume more calories than the poorer nations, but most of these calories come from increased (and unhealthy) fat and sugar intake. The people of poorer nations get roughly the same carbohydrate total as we do, but much more of theirs comes in complex, unrefined forms. In this sense, ironically, they are healthier than we are.
The very sugars that, in refined form, help ruin the modem American diet have always been available in natural forms: the fruits, berries, and honey on which our ancestors relied for sweetness. All modern man has done is to purify those sugars, isolate them from their natural forms, and concentrate them in junk foods. We get sucrose from beets (beet sugar) and sugarcane (cane sugar) and glucose from com. Added into many of the foods we eat, these gradually have taken an even greater part in providing our daily calorie intake. The more refined sugar (and meat) we eat, the less room we have for complex carbohydrates. Of particular importance in this inverse, the equation is a natural fiber, which has been lost in so many of the foods we eat. Western man gets an average of 2 to 5 grams of fiber a day, while primitive cultures get as much as 18 grams.2 In short, we’re rapidly abandoning whole, healthy forms of sugar for precisely the forms that can do the most damage to our health
Why We Eat So Much Sugar?
If you are an average American, half of your caloric intake comes from carbohydrate foods. That is, carbohydrates supply half your body’s energy needs for keeping each cell going and for all your activities.
Unfortunately, there are good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates. The kind that nature provides us in the form of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains provides energy in the form your body can best use. But the carbohydrates which the processed food industry offers us in the form of sugary pastries, donuts, cottony white bread, and soft drinks are laden with chemicals and excessive amounts of cheap sugar.
It is these carbohydrates the refined carbohydrates that have earned all members of this food group a bad name. Refined carbohydrates can undermine health and, even worse, lay the groundwork for many major diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. There are many reasons why Americans perhaps yourself included have come to willingly accept a diet so high in refined carbohydrates.
Here are a few explanations:
- Ignorance. If you don’t read labels, ask questions, and educate yourself, you may be unaware of the low nutritional value processed foods provide.
- Advertising. Processed foods are inexpensive to produce. They generate huge profits. Much of this profit is used to convince the public that processed refined carbohydrates are not only acceptable but healthy.
- It isn’t just the sweet flavor that makes it hard to resist taking a second candy and a third and another. Foods containing little more than refined carbohydrates such as sugar or denatured starches are habit-forming. Sugar creates deficiencies and at the same time, it creates a craving for more.
- Convenience. You may be aware that advertisers grossly exaggerate the facts, and that sugar and devitalized starches offer only empty calories that turn into unwanted pounds. You may suspect that you are eating more than you should. But you do it anyway, telling yourself these foods are easy and convenient. After a long, hard day of work or a poor night’s sleep, you may not relish the idea of cooking from scratch. This rationalization can take years off your life by ruining your health.
- Hidden carbohydrates. Surveys based on a sample of 400 members of my radio listening audience turned up evidence that the average American is now willingly and/or unknowingly eating between 4 and 5 ounces of sucrose a day an amount definitely hazardous to anyone’s well-being. And it is not because we are putting too much sugar in our tea or sprinkling it on our morning cereal. No, unfortunately, it is because we are eating huge amounts of sugar hidden in a wide variety of popular foods.
An Example of the Effect of Hidden Sugars
This may seem incredible. But let’s look at a day in the life of an “average” child. This child is named Jimmy, and he’s ten years old. His parents aren’t impoverished or uncaring people, but well-educated middle-class professionals; they pay as close attention to the food their son eats as to the grades he brings home from school.
When Jimmy comes down for breakfast his mother has fixed him a hearty meal, designed (so she thinks) to supply all the nutrients he needs to remain energetic and alert throughout the morning. To start with there is a large glass of orange juice made from pure, unsweetened concentrate; after that a toasted English muffin with a little butter and some “natural” (preservative-free) jam. For his main course, Jimmy gets a bowl of cold cereal with milk. The cereal is of the presweetened variety a concession to Jimmy’s sweet tooth but no further sugar is allowed. And anyway, the cereal (like the English muffin) has been “enriched” with vitamins.
At lunchtime, his mother can’t control Jimmy’s diet, since he eats the school lunch rather than bringing his own. Even so, there’s no cause, so she believes, for alarm, because the school dietician always plans a nourishing, balanced meal. Today there’s a vegetable soup from a can, spaghetti with tomato-and-meat sauce, and canned string beans. Dessert is strawberry Jell-0 with non-dairy whipped cream.
For dinner, Jimmy gets his favorite meal of all: hamburgers, mashed potatoes, and creamed spinach. The burgers are served on fresh-made buns from a nearby bakery, and Jimmy likes his with plenty of ketchup and relish. The potatoes are made from a mix Jimmy’s mother was too tired to peel, boil, and mash her own but the package reassures her that they have been enriched with several vitamins and minerals. The creamed spinach is from a frozen commercial preparation, but spinach is spinach always good for you, she believes, and the freezing process “locks in” so many of the essential nutrients. Jimmy’s father is on a diet, so there is no dessert, but when he’s finished his homework, Jimmy sits down to watch television with cookies and a big glass of Coca-Cola. The cookies were purchased at the neighborhood bakery, so, like the hamburger buns, they must be okay.
Well, most people would say that Jimmy had only four foods that contain sugar today: cereal, Jell-O, cookies, and soda pop. They’re wrong. He had sugar common table sugar in all but a couple of the foods he ate. There was sugar in his muffins, his jam, his orange juice, his vegetable soup, his spaghetti sauce, his ketchup, and relish. All of this was added by the companies that manufacture the foods.
Other Refined Carbohydrates
Sugar was not the only carbohydrate Jimmy got in his food today. He also got plenty of steamed, bleached, refined starch empty calories almost as unhealthy as the table sugar. There was starch in his cereal, his muffins, his spaghetti, his hamburger bun.
What Jimmy missed in this array of bland, processed foods were most of the essential nutrients his mother wanted him to have. He missed out on them because American food production takes naturally nutritious food and strips it of almost everything that makes it worth eating. He got almost no natural fiber, the vital complex carbohydrate (which should have been abundant in his bread and cereals) that enables us to eliminate food wastes efficiently. He got almost none of the complex sugars that exist in plentitude in fresh fruits and vegetables and grains. He got a meager supply of the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other essential nutrients that we need to survive. In its natural and original form, his food possessed everything he needed. However, by the time he ate it, its nutrients had been stripped away.
What Jimmy ate instead were a few traces of vitamin additives, a whole storehouse of preservatives and other chemicals, several handfuls of refined starch, and about thirty teaspoons of table sugar. Can you imagine how much worse off he’d have been if his mother didn’t care about his diet?
The Psychological Connection
There is good reason to worry about the preservatives and other chemical additives in Jimmy’s food. But the worst cause for worry by far is the thirty-teaspoon sugar dose. The consequences of that, along with the nutrients he didn’t get, will affect not only his physical health but his psychological well-being, as well.
To understand how this happens, you have to realize that sugar gives Jimmy an energy boost similar to what adults get from caffeine. As the refined sugar pours into his bloodstream in one swift jolt, he becomes hyperactive and overexcited. He’s had a powerful “drug” and the “drug” has a violent effect on the way he feels. But Jimmy doesn’t know any of this; he doesn’t know why he’s feeling the way he does and he doesn’t know how to express what’s wrong.
With that extra, unusable energy propelling him into hyperactivity Jimmy can only express what he feels through antisocial behavior: anger, moodiness, irritability; he may be unable to concentrate. Since this behavior comes out when he’s at school, Jimmy’s teacher notices and marks him down as a “ problem child” or “ slow learner.” When the behavior continues* reports start coming home to Jimmy’s parents. Conferences are held, psychometric tests are given and therapists consulted, and soon Jimmy becomes an official “ problem.” And now his problems, initially caused by a simple dietary excess, become part of his family, part of his life. His parents feel guilty and get depressed because they don’t know “ where they went wrong.”
Meanwhile, the cause of the problem goes unnoticed. Jimmy continues eating as much sugar as he always has, and in time he becomes a sugar addict every bit as dependent on his sugar dose as a caffeine addict is on his cups of coffee and cola drinks. (And remember, often Jimmy gets sugar and caffeine in the same overstimulating mouthful, from the cola that he drinks every day.) When he becomes an addict, he needs sugar to cure his “ withdrawal symptoms”: moodiness, headaches, fatigue, cramps. Unless someone breaks him of the habit, he’ll have it for life.
And worst of all, it doesn’t take massive doses of sugar to make Jimmy hyperactive all morning; a mere two teaspoons are enough. Multiply that dose by ten or fifteen, and you can guess the extent of Jimmy’s sugar problem.
How American Adults Eat
Now imagine Jimmy as an adult. With no conscientious mother to look after him, he eats what he wants. Unwilling to take time for breakfast at home, he grabs a Danish pastry on his way to work and washes it down with coffee (two packets of sugar per cup). At midmorning, unable to concentrate because he’s improperly nourished, he wolfs down another Danish and more sugary coffee. By lunchtime, he’s starved, so after a cocktail (loaded with sugar), it’s a king-size hamburger with French fries and lots of ketchup and relish, and then a piece of chocolate cake for dessert with more coffee to follow. Later that day, if dinner isn’t eaten at McDonald’s, it will be a few more cocktails, a big steak, and some potatoes, salad with dressing, and a piece of pie a la mode. After two cups of coffee (four teaspoons of sugar), he’ll settle down to watch television with potato chips and soda.
Jimmy’s consumption of table sugar has risen from about thirty teaspoons a day to well over fifty.
If this picture seems “ extreme” to you, it may be that you’re genuinely better informed about the importance of a good diet than Jimmy and his mother. But don’t think for a minute that the picture is false.
You might take your own survey about the foods most often eaten by your friends. Then calculate the amount of sugar. You’ll be surprised if you were doubtful before.
Later in this section, we’ll see how excess refined carbohydrates and lack of complex carbohydrates are implicated in a whole range of diseases and disorders, from constipation to colorectal cancer, from dental caries to heart disease and diabetes.
Changing Carbohydrates in Your Diet
critics often insist that nothing in our diet is much different than it was three-quarters of a century ago.
But in days gone by, as in areas less affluent than ours, men, women, and children depended on the food they grew or raised, the riches with which nature had blessed them, not the riches they could have shipped in to suit their whims. Thus, until modern times, the diet was rich in complex carbohydrates from grains, legumes, tubers, and fruits in season, combined with dairy products and occasional meat or fish for additional protein.
The kind of sugar we were eating in the last century and that is slipping out of our diets now was the “good kind” that comes from tree-ripened fruits and fresh-from-the-garden vegetables.
The starches then were alive with vitamins, enzymes, and major and trace minerals for radiant health. A cooked, canned potato or carrot is no match for the real thing. It has been subjected to nutrient-killing heat and to the canning process, which may add dangerous contaminants, and it is now hazardously high in sodium and low in fiber. No wonder we reach for one candy bar after another! But that mythical “instant energy” comes from real foods in their natural state.
In America today, it is true that half our diet still consists of carbohydrates, similar to the 56.1 percent level noted from 1909 to 1913. But at that time, carbohydrates came largely from root vegetables and whole grains. Only about 21 percent was eaten in the form of sugary foods. By forty-five years later, fresh potatoes, brown breakfast cereals, and other high-mineral, whole foods had started losing ground. We were eating baked potatoes less often and replacing them with many high sugar convenience snacks. The result is that complex carbohydrates now make up 35.7 percent of our diet.
There is no doubt a connection between the fact that one hundred years ago we ate one-fifth as much sugar and that9 cancer and coronary heart disease were not discussed as “ the killer diseases,” despite the fact that 110 one worried about cholesterol. For optimal health, it is important to substitute whole for refined carbohydrates.
Whole foods are the real alternative to a diet of fractionated foods that lead to disease. Here are a few foods that you may have forgotten about lately. Eat them often. You can get all the energizing sugar and starch you need from them.
Whole grains, such as millet and barley, wheat and rye, oats, buckwheat, and corn, are available raw, cracked, or ground from any health food store. They can be turned into bread, side dishes, and hot cereals.
A large variety of peas and beans need only to be soaked overnight and then cooked an hour or so before they’re ready to be eaten as soup or stew or as a main dish.
But why cook them at all? To get the maximum benefit from both grains and legumes, sprout them yourself or buy them sprouted and ready to snack on. They provide a starch food that’s easier to digest because it’s been broken down into simple carbohydrates. And when you sprout, you’re carrying on a tradition that dates back as early as 3000 B.C.10 It’s a practice that deserves to be perpetuated.
Fresh corn on the cob is another example of a good carbohydrate starch. The North American Indians knew this. They worshiped com as the “giver of life.” It is available almost year-round in many parts of our country and there are a half dozen delicious ways to prepare it roasted indoors or out in the husk, baked, steamed, or broiled. You can even dry the ear and snack on the kernels. It is low calorie unless you raise the fat content with lots of butter.
How long has it been since you took the trouble to scrub, oil, and bake a nourishing, low-calorie potato? Few foods are so filling and so rich in natural carbohydrates. The skin alone contains almost one-fifth of this vegetable’s protein and many nutrients. Many of the world’s peoples especially the Irish and British still use the potato to great nutritional advantage. It is only slightly less important abroad than wheat. In fact, in 1967, 85 percent of the world’s supply of potatoes was eaten by Europeans. And, of course, history books tell the story of how the potato saved so many lives during the eighteenth-century Irish potato famine. After World War I, many Germans escaped death11 from malnutrition during the economic depression thanks to the availability of this amazing vegetable.
O f course, the ultimate alternative to a no-no like sugar candy is fruit. It has all the instant energy you need, plus all the nutrients that processing has taken out of the high-calorie processed snack. It takes five minutes to juice a pulp-and-bioflavonoid-rich orange, thirty seconds to peel a potassium-rich banana, and no time at all to eat an apple which, along with vitamins, gives you important carbohydrate elements such as fiber and pectin to lower your cholesterol. For fructose, glucose,
and cellulose in a safe, natural form, “reach for a peach instead of a sweet.”
All carbohydrates are not alike. Whole, complex carbohydrates are as essential to us as proteins and fats, vitamins and minerals, in maintaining health. They supply us with fuel that energizes every cell in the body. Due to ignorance, advertising, convenience, hidden sugars in our foods, and the fact that sugar is habit-forming, we have come to substitute refined carbohydrates for the complex. The result is often serious psychological problems: a child may become hyperactive and troubled as a result of his body’s inability to process a carbohydrate overload. He or she can become addicted to sugar, as so many of us are: Americans eat about two pounds a week of refined sugar.
Good carbohydrates are abundantly available to all of us as unrefined or “whole’’ grains in the form of bread, cereals, and sprouts, like fresh fruits and root vegetables, like lettuces and other leafy green vegetables, as fresh or dried peas, and as lentils and beans. This diet, which seems so old-fashioned to us, is what many authorities believe spared our grandparents from such twentieth-century killer diseases as diabetes, cancer, and coronary heart disease. It is worth returning to if long, healthy life is your goal for yourself and your family.