News articles frequently call our attention to the damaging effect of addictions upon the American people. Once, the principal focus was on alcohol addiction – a disease that afflicts about 10% of American drinkers of alcohol. The remaining 90% apparently receive a slight amount of life extension from this habit. Now, the focus is on soft and hard drugs that destroy the mind – turning the most unfortunate into human vegetables and others into criminals who turn to robbery and worse to feed their habits.
While these addictions do diminish the quantity and quality of human life to a substantial extent, they affect a relatively small number of people. Probably more damaging are the lesser addictions that harm a large percentage of individuals. Principal among these, of course, is smoking. Life expectancy is diminished about 8 years per pack per day of cigarettes smoked. Moreover, this is not 8 years at the end. Smoking compresses life and accelerates aging. This is evident even by casual observation of heavy smokers, who often look older than their chronological age.
Another addiction also accelerates aging – the increased probability of death with time. This is the addiction to sucrose, which also diminishes the quality of life. There is a large amount of information about this; The book Sweet and Dangerous by John Yudkin is a good place to begin a review of the correlations between sugar and all sorts of scourges from tooth decay to heart disease. While virtually all natural foods contain sucrose, the ability to manufacture it cheaply has caused an order of magnitude increase in sugar consumption. In the average American diet, about 20% of caloric intake is sugar – a physiological assault that our bodies are not designed to endure.
Both my wife Laurelee and I became addicted to sugar at early ages. In my case, I was a model student in the first and second grades at ages 5 and 6 – so much so that I was expected to skip the 3rd grade and enter the 4th at the age of 7. Then my family moved, and circumstances caused my mother to supply me with money to buy my lunch at school. I spent the money on candy, and the effects were soon evident. I developed unruly behavior, and my academic performance sharply dropped. The third, fourth, and fifth grades augured very poorly for my future. We then moved again, but I still carried the lunch money, and the sixth grade saw no improvement.
Fortunately, two more moves found my family in Victoria and then Houston, Texas, where my father designed the Union Carbide plant at Seadrift and then became head of engineering and construction for Union Carbide International. In Victoria and Houston I did not have easy access to sugar. The result was that my grades from the 7th grade on were perfect, my extracurricular performance in athletics, acting, and debate was excellent, and I was selected to attend Caltech (also MIT, Harvard, and Rice). If the sugar had not been withdrawn, I would have been lucky to attend college at all.
The addiction was, however, ingrained, and I have struggled with it all of my life. Laurelee, too, had this problem. After our marriage, she largely gave it up, with a marked improvement in her sense of well-being, but she and I were never completely free. Once every month or two, she would make a large batch of chocolate chip cookies, so we would both indulge ourselves – and then suffer the usual physiological penalties.
We were, however, not completely foolish. Before our children were conceived and born, we abstained completely – and we made sure that our children did not develop this affliction. The rewards in quiet, intelligent children with virtually no health problems and good jaw development and teeth were well worth the self-control.
Child behavior is one very common casualty of sugar addiction. I recall one study carried out by colleagues of mine who were interested in food additives and “hyperactivity.” Their protocol required the parents to write down the last things the child had eaten before each hyperactive episode. The results – sugar was the hyperactivity trigger.
I remember, too, an outstanding undergraduate student at UCSD for whom we all had high hopes. He was highest in his class in science and superb in the laboratory. This won him a scholarship to Rockefeller University – probably the most exclusive graduate science school in the United States because the graduate student body is very small. Yet, a year later, he had dropped out of Rockefeller. When I offered him a job in my lab as a technician, he warned me, “I am not the man I used to be.” Then he told me that sugar addiction and hypoglycemia had led to mental symptoms that destroyed his performance.
The ingestion of excess sucrose supplies the body with very large amounts of fructose. Sucrose, a dimmer of fructose and glucose, is rapidly hydrolyzed in the stomach. Glucose is ordinarily present in large amounts in the blood, but fructose is not. Also, the sugars in sucrose enter the blood stream quickly, causing a rapid rise in blood glucose. For this reason, the blood sugar of sucrose addicts oscillates wildly over a wide range. It is not known which of these effects – fructose or blood sugar oscillation – is the worst health hazard.
Sugar definitely weakens the immune system – which protects us from many things from colds to cancer. As an older person, my system contains a wider selection of immune responses than that of a younger person. Consequently, when the children have colds or other similar maladies, I am usually spared. If, however, there is illness in the house, I must be sure to control my sugar addiction. A plate of cookies will make certain that I, too, share their illness.
Sugar addiction is very common, so many Access to Energy readers have this difficulty. After studying this problem both scientifically and personally for more than 30 years and talking with many people concerning it, I can fairly well predict the letters that this article will elicit There will be many readers who tell me similar anecdotes about their own health problems with sugar addiction. Also, there will be one or two from sugar-afflicted die-hards who insist that their habit is harmless. There is, of course, wide biological individuality; so differing experiences are expected. For most people, however, if they honestly observe their own well-being as a function of sugar ingestion, the experiences will be similarly negative.
After Laurelee died and was no longer here to protect her family with the best nutrition she could design, my addiction reasserted itself. This is especially a problem because I now buy the family groceries. Grocery stores have many temptations – even with six sugar-free children in attendance. I am one of the few adults who has had the experience of an eight-year-old child (Matthew) standing with arms outstretched in front of the grocery store cookie counter and loudly saying, “No, you cannot have any cookies.”
Once, a couple of years after Laurelee died, I noticed that my semi-secret cookie supply was diminishing. The supply was already a hazard because my cookies sometimes inexplicably were found to contain soap. “Now you have done it,” I thought, “You have set a bad example, and one of the children is becoming addicted.”
For a while, no one admitted to the crime. Finally, however, my oldest son Zachary came forward He had, he said, been stealing my cookies and throw them away because he and the other children had noticed that I was more irritable when eating sugar. They were right Increased irritability is a common side effect of sugar consumption. The effects of sugar addiction increase with age, but they can be very damaging to young people, too. Diminished mental performance, irritability, excess weight, and headaches are some of the milder symptoms. Those are for the fortunate. Increased probability of degenerative diseases and early death await the not-so-fortunate.
The best solution, as with any addiction, is not to start. This is the reason that Laurelee and I raised sugar-free children. I hope they do not cast off this blessing. They will, I hope, have families of their own and will want the best nutritional health, both before and after birth, for their children. The world, however, is filled with temptation. Five of them are in colleges now, and are influence by their peers. One is starting to eat sugar. Another is too fond of very high sugar fruit juices. I hope that they will pull back before it is too late.
This Access to Energy is being written without sugar. Readers may notice that the rhetoric is not quite so strident. Yet, who knows what words you will encounter as a result of the large number of mercury amalgum fillings in my teeth – put there by lunch money long ago. We addicts try all sorts of artifices. Aspartame is the most common, but aspartame is physiologically active, too. You have read many words (not these) written under the influence of aspartame-laced diet soda, which also feeds one’s caffeine addiction. Of caffeine, I can echo Mark Twain’s boast concerning his cigars. I know that I can give it up. I have done it a thousand times. Caffeine withdrawal takes three days and follows a predictable course of tiredness and then reawakening.
The terrible irony is that, absent these addictions, the flavors and effects of ordinary foods are much more enjoyable and certainly surpass those of health-diminishing concoctions. A sugar-free individual finds natural foods to be quite sweet and those laced with sugar to be too sweet; a caffeine-free individual is uniformly alert, not just after his fix; and a child who has been blessed with parents who keep him free of health-damaging addictions has a chance for a far better life.
by Art Robinson, Access to Energy, December 2002 (Vol.30, no.5)