Dr. Katz – Sugar Defender

April 20, 2011

Last week, Gary Taubes wrote an article for the New York Times, asking “Is Sugar Toxic?“. Those of you familiar with Taubes will find it no surprise that he answers this question in the affirmative.

I don’t think Taubes is an absolute genius, in fact I think he is a little off base in blaming carbohydrate so completely for the current health state of the country – I tend to believe that all the nasty new stuff (Kurt Harris’ Neolithic Agents of Disease, or NAD for short) are to blame, including refined carbohydrate. Despite this small difference, I consider myself a fan of Taubes.

Since the publishing of this article, many have come out of the woodwork to voice their own opinions on the matter, especially those in strong disagreement with Taubes’ argument. Today we’ll look at one article from that camp, one written by a doctor. Read on.

The article, from our MD friend, Dr. David Katz. Give it a read. Now let’s look at a few quotes.

Sugar, concentrated into the nectar of flowers, fuels the flight of hummingbirds. It is, in fact, the sole food source of these marvels of both aviation, and metabolic intensity. How evil can hummingbird fuel be?

Dollars to donuts (aka “hummigbird fuel”) says he was staring out the window with writer’s block in the early stages of this article. This is utterly ridiculous and completely unrelated to human diet. Thankfully he acknowledges this:

Clearly not evil at all for hummingbirds! But that may not say much about us. So enough about hummingbirds; let’s talk about you and me.

Maybe he had to hit a minimum number of words to get paid. Moving on.

Katz explains that breast milk is loaded with sugar (lactose) and obviously breast milk is healthy:

Breast milk — and I trust no one is foolhardy enough to suggest that breast milk is evil! — is a sugar-sweetened beverage.

I’ll concede this point. Breast milk is not evil. Breast milk is designed by evolution, a perfect food for growing babies. Unfortunately, we are not all growing babies, a point that seems lost on the good doctor. It seems an exercise in what Michael Pollan would call “reductionist nutritionism.” Katz is exonerating sugar of all evil because it is one ingredient in a food that is safe for babies. Completely ludicrous.

He goes on to explain that humans like sweet-tasting food:

We like sweet because mammals who like sweet are more apt to survive than mammals who don’t. Period.

Thanks for this revolutionary discovery doc! I can’t decide if this argument is better or worse than the one about baby food. Is he suggesting that anything tasty can’t be unhealthy? Completely ludicrous.

At this point, he spends half the article rambling about addiction and reward centers and the like. Finally, he comes back to sugar:

If anything in our food is potentially addictive, it is sugar- in its various forms, and under its diverse aliases. This is where Lustig, Taubes, and I converge. An excess of sugar- fructose or any other- is harmful. That is what “excess” means. The dose makes the poison.

Everyone agrees with this. I think just about the entire country realizes that eating a wheelbarrow full of sugar every day would be bad. Also, Taubes is not an advocate of zero-carb eating, so he clearly believes that some sugar is acceptable. The important question is where the border lies between acceptable and deleterious, the maximum healthful sugar dose.

Katz continues to say that he thinks that fructose shouldn’t be vilified, because, well, fruit contains fructose:

So while fructose as an ingredient excessively engineered into processed foods is, indeed, a problem- I find it far-fetched at best to suggest the native composition of, say, berries is “evil.” Lustig seems to be tossing out the the strawberries with the soda. You find me the person who can blame obesity or diabetes on eating strawberries, and I will give up my day job and become a hula dancer.

This is “reductionist nutrition” at it’s reductionist-y. Fructose is safe for human consumption because it is included in strawberries, and strawberries don’t cause obesity. Well, rat poison doesn’t cause obesity, so rat poison must also be safe to eat. Completely ludicrous.

What’s more, while I am a fan of berries (I eat them almost every day when in season), you could certainly become a fat diabetic through the use of strawberries. Katz gives them a pass because other, more concentrated sources of fructose are more likely to cause obesity? Completely ludicrous.

Here’s my favorite part:

A diet can contain sugar, and specifically fructose, and be optimal for health. A diet could be low in sugar, but high in sodium or trans fat, or deficient in fiber and omega-3 fat — and be far from optimal.

Lustig and Taubes are propagating the ONAAT fallacy. Like Atkins and others who have come before them, they appear to be dualists who divide the spectrum and subtleties of food into good vs. evil.

I must have read that wrong, because it sounded like Katz was doing precisely what he accuses Taubes and Lustig of; he clearly implies that sodium and trans fat are evil, and that fiber and omega-3s are good. Completely ludicrous.

He closes with a gem ripped from the pages of Pollan:

We should, indeed, eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

The irony is so thick you could cut it with a knife. In an article based on nothing but rambling non-sequiters and blatant reductionist nutrionism, Katz invokes a phrase popularized by a man so fervently opposed to that type of ideological argument that he bothered to write a book about it. Completely ludicrous.

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