ST. LOUIS -- Some doctors say sugar may be the number one killer in America right now. That may sound like a stretch, but you can see why they make that claim.
Diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and obesity can all be partially attributed to too much sugar.
Mike Norton, 51, had been an athlete most of his life. He thought he was doing everything right with diet and exercise, but then he suffered a heart attack just over five years ago.
“I consumed carbs all the time, not knowing that they were bad for you until I had some medical issues, then I found out otherwise,” he said.
Norton was a ticking time bomb.
“I know factually it was my diet,” he said.
Norton thought he was eating healthy: low fat, low calories, but loads of carbs – which means lots of sugar.
“Load up on pasta before a run or a ride,” he said. “So that’s what I did and I did that for decades. After I finished eating a heavy carb meal, within an hour I was hungry, so I would eat more. And it was self-perpetuating.”
That is one of the main symptoms of a carb addict. You can't stop eating, especially after a high carb big meal, because carbs turn into sugar. If some sugar sensitive people have just one piece of candy, they have intense cravings for more.
So after his health scare, Norton cut out all carbs and started eating fattier, more calorie dense foods.
“My energy level is much higher. My mental acuity. My weight has gone down about 25 pounds and I have sustained that weight loss,” he said.
And his test results back that up.
“I was a pre-diabetic. I’m not anymore. My cholesterol is down tremendously since being on this diet,” Norton said.
Dr. Rick Lehman, Orthopedic Surgeon and Director with the U.S. Center for Sports Medicine in Kirkwood, works with athletes every day. And he agrees that sugar addiction is a big problem.
“I think sugar in and of itself is one of the worst foods you can possibly eat,” he said.
Research shows that sugar affects the brain in the same ways as cocaine or heroin. Scans show identical areas of the brain light up when exposed to drugs or sugar.
“Sugar addiction is really no different than opioid addiction. People have looked at all these things that are similar to opioid addiction,” Lehman said. “It’s a real effort, it’s not as easy as saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to eat junk food.’”
So how did all the companies get it so wrong with the low-fat craze?
The American Medical Association Journal reported last year sugar companies paid researchers in the 1960s and 1970s to downplay the role sugar has on health. And with that research, the blame shifted to fatty foods. So to make low-fat foods taste better, sugar-based additives were put in most everything.
“When we all believed that fats are bad and carbs were good, so we were eating low-fat cookies and low-fat food, and what happened to America? We got immense. We got giant,” Lehman said.
And for people like Norton, who have cut carbs out, life has gotten so much sweeter.
“For me personally, it’s all about quality of life. I now have the ability to exercise at not quite the intensity I once did, but without worrying about having a heart attack,” Norton said. “So for me, that gave me a level of freedom that I didn’t have prior to being on this diet.”
Of course, some say that sugar addiction is a cop-out for people who simply lack the will power to say no to certain foods. Doctors said that's the same excuse made in the 70s as research started coming out about smoking. When you engineer foods to make you dependent upon them, you can really see how hard it is for some people to stop.