Are Sugary Beverages the Cause of the American Obesity Epidemic?

With concern rising around our nation’s obesity epidemic, experts are frantically trying to determine what the specific causes are, and more importantly, what the solution is. Among a number of experts is Dr. Robert Lustig, the man who’s become the face of the ‘sugar is toxic’ movement.

Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, gained notoriety after posting his lecture titled ‘Sugar: The Bitter Truth‘ on YouTube in 2023, which has since gained more than 2.3 million hits.

Lustig believes sugar is the major cause of most of the health-related diseases Americans are facing today, including obesity and type 2 diabetes. And he thinks that 75% of these diseases are preventable if we’d just cut back on our sugar consumption.

According to a recent CNN report, the average American teenager consumes about 4 pounds of sugar a week – which translates to 200 pounds a year. And based on the figures of our nation’s health as a whole, the average adult isn’t far behind.

When Dr. Sanjay Gupta asked Dr. Lustig if sugar is just empty calories or if it’s more than that, Lustig responded saying everyone thinks obesity is caused by eating too much and exercising too little. But he disagrees, saying obesity is a marker for metabolic disfunction. And if you look at what we’re eating in America, it’s not any more fat – it’s sugar.

According to Dr. Gupta, our nation’s sugar consumption has gone up 6-fold in the last century. And the question is now becoming, can our liver handle it? Dr. Lustig says no, arguing each of us has a personal sugar threshold beyond which we shouldn’t go over. People who exercise a lot, including elite athletes, he says, can take in all the sugar they want and it doesn’t matter. But the problem is if you’re not an elite athlete and you’re sedentary, you can’t handle that much sugar.

Exactly what happens when we eat too much sugar too quickly for our liver to process? According to Lustig it builds up liver fat that contributes to insulin resistance. It also ends up causing changes in our arteries and makes them less flexible and less stretchy, which contributes to heart disease.

Dr. Lustig truly does believe that sugar is toxic, but maybe not the kind of toxic that we think about. He explains that there’s three different levels of toxins: One which can kill almost instantly, such as cyanide; another that becomes toxic at a slightly higher dose, such as arsenic; and the last type, which takes higher doses over time to become toxic, such as vitamin A – which in low doses is fine, but too much becomes toxic. This, he likens to sugar.

Lustig believes the problem with sugar is that we don’t know what that threshold is because the USDA has never set that threshold. Dr. Lustig himself has made changes in his own household to keep added sugar to a minimum. On weekdays, he says, their dessert consists of fruit. And on Saturdays and Sundays, they can have a scoop of ice cream if they’d like.

So, he argues the solution isn’t completely cutting sugar out of our diets, but rather having it as an occasional treat instead of an everyday indulgence.

Is Soda the Problem?

One of these ‘everyday indulgences’ some experts say we should remove from our diets is soda and other sugary beverages – including fruit juice, sports drinks, and flavored milks, etc.

More recently soft drinks and other sugary beverages have become the target suspect in the obesity epidemic, specifically when it comes to children. According to studies, children are consuming some 300 calories per day or more from sugary beverages alone. And the reason these beverages are being singled out is that it’s easier to cut them out than force children to complete two hours of moderate activity to burn off the extra calories.

However, the soft drink industry feels it’s being singled out, arguing that although soda consumption has declined, obesity has still increased. For this reason, they believe sugar alone can’t be the sole cause of obesity.’s Registered Dietitian, Mary Hartley, RD, also says that sugar and sugary foods are not the sole cause of obesity.

“Obesity is caused by a complex mix of environmental and genetic factors. But with that said, there is no need to drink soda, as anyone with the faintest idea of nutrition should know,” she says. “Since soda is a luxury item without nutritional value, it could be taxed. A soda tax of a few pennies would not significantly reduce obesity, but it would generate significant revenue to pay for some of the problems obesity causes and to fund public education to address the obesity crisis.”

Also Read:

Food Fight: Sugar vs. Sweeteners

The Culprit for Food Addiction is Dopamine

Consequences of the Obesity Epidemic

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