In 1972 John Yudkin, a physiologist, nutritionist and founding member of the Department of Nutrition at the Queen Elisabeth College in London, published a book called “Pure, White and Deadly – The new facts about the sugar you eat as a cause of heart disease, diabetes and other killers.” Since the late 1950s, Yudkin’s research had pointed to a connection between coronary thrombosis and sugar consumption, and he had argued against common ideas of fat causing obesity and problems like coronary heart disease. However, Yudkin could not make himself heard against the powerful voice of the sugar industry and of other scientific evidence pointing the finger at another suspect, so that Yudkin’s ideas vanished and “low fat became the new buzz phrase in nutrition.”

About 40 years later, we learn about the story of the “sugar conspiracy.” Referring to Robert Lustig, a paediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, whose 2009 YouTube clip “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” has over 6.5 Million clicks by now, a number of articles explain how Yudkin’s work was banned from the scientific canon – a work that Robert Lustig had only accidently found out about. This latest research makes the claim that low fat campaigns may have been responsible for increasing obesity rates over the past 40 years. Sugar quitters argue that listening to Yudkin and avoiding sugar instead of avoiding fat would have kept people from gaining weight. Thus, their message is that a healthier lifestyle could have been promoted years ago. Reports, life-style magazines, nutritionists and exchange forums tell us to quit sugar, so that we will regain control over our body and our life. Therefore, the non-sugar diet reiterates ideas of physical essentialism. It fosters the vision of an original, natural, and self-caring state of the body that needs to be regained. This message is based on several core arguments.

First: The Industry-Sugar-Conspiracy

We are told that the first thing to keep in mind when starting a non-sugar diet is that sugar is everywhere. Therefore, keeping your groceries sugar-free requires time and expertise. Not only sweet food or candy contain sugar, even sausages, salads and most processed foods – organic or not – do. Furthermore, labels such as “sugar-free” or “no added sugar” don’t mean that the products don’t include sugar at all. Shocking to most people, they learn that their beloved healthy food is full of sugar, hidden behind various terms like glucose, fructose, butter syrup, galactose, malt dextrin, etc. While there is quite a debate on the metabolism of high-fructose corn syrup, according to Robert H. Lustig, it’s fructose in general that raises the sugar input to a level described as dramatic. To sum up, promoters of quitting sugar stress that you can never be sure what’s in your food and that the industry takes advantage of that. In fact, and that is also part of the story, they point out that the food industry relies on a serious sugar addiction consumers are not aware of.

Second: Addicted to sugar – locating the main symptom

Latest research on sugar seems to provide a physiological explanation of the high consumption of “unhealthy foods.” According to Lustig, sugar consumption directly responds to the neurological system, and sugar is described as causing a serious addiction, comparable to cocaine or nicotine. Therefore, we are warned of a number of serious withdrawal symptoms, like headaches, tiredness or weakness that will be faced at the beginning of a no-sugar diet. But once survived “going cold turkey,” there is revelation to come. We learn that according to former “sugar addicts,” most sweets don’t even taste good anymore. People realize they were eating too much of the wrong food because their bodies just got addicted to it. Accordingly, there is neither a need to fight obesity nor can people be blamed for eating too much. It’s the sugar-addiction that has to be treated. By promoting a low-fat diet, consumers became seriously addicted to sugar because sugar is used as a substitute for fat.

Third: Healthy bodies don’t need diets – the end of unnecessary activities?

Once the “contaminated” food is located and the addiction has been overcome, sugar quitters report about their new and improved life. Sugar-quitters underline their message by stressing that they don’t feel restricted at all, even though their new life demands a lot of home-cooking, food sharing, and shopping in health food stores or organic supermarkets. Sugar quitters also report about feeling fitter, healthier and more productive. For them, fighting poor concentration with a sweet snack is not necessary anymore, cravings are gone, people wake up before their alarm-clock is ringing, and skin or digestion problems just vanish. We are also told that getting rid of sugar also means getting rid of several problems caused by an “artificial” lifestyle. Once your body and its needs “are back under control,” thinking about calories has come to an end. Losing weight becomes a side effect.

Thus, sugar quitters are presented as being highly aware and in control of their food consumption. They know what to eat and why and when. They have time to prepare the perfect meal, and they are described as having (re-)discovered their natural way of eating and of making responsible choices. This sounds tempting. It seems like that if we had listened to John Yudkin 40 years ago, there would be no need to fight “obesity,” no need to struggle with diets, bad skin and even worse symptoms.

These arguments sound compelling and convincing to many. Quitting sugar may be one easy way to fight “obesity,” to improve our health, and to better our life. It also promises to empower consumers in their struggle with industrial recommendations not helping at all; it offers an explanation for countless research on nutrition and dieting that is not working at all, and it creates the vision of people regaining control over their own bodies. Being skinny is no longer the primary goal. Bodies are supposed to be healthier, fitter, and more productive, and they are supposed to look like that. Nutrition is meant to make people feel more energetic, prevent or even cure skin-problems and even diseases like cancer. The no-sugar diet seems to meet all this criteria, but it does not question them at all. At the bottom line, quitting sugar is presented as solution for almost every hardship we know. By quitting sugar, people are promised that they can get back in control of all their problems in one single step and, thus, also regain control over their bodies and their life. However, the essentialist notion of an original and self-caring state of the body is a fallacy. At first sight, sugar quitters show a critical attitude particularly towards research results, dieting, and the food industry. Up to a certain point, they even seem to deconstruct the concept of fighting obesity and dieting. Yet in a really tricky way the arguments for quitting sugar point back to the individual and its responsibility for its body. If a “natural,” “sugar free” body is presented as living up to the demands of health and productivity, it gets difficult to question these standards and their normative effects in general. This ideal becomes even more powerful, since an addicted soul and an unhealthy body make the perfect consumer of products overloaded with artificial sugar, who appears more like a slave than like a self-reliant and autonomous consumer in a liberal society.

About the Author

Tanja Robnik

Website Tanja Robnik is a PhD student at the department of Sociology, LMU Munich and part of the joint research project “Nutrition, Health, and modern Society: Germany and the US.” She is currently working on her PhD dissertation ‚Fat Americans‘: ”On the notion of ‘national’ and ‘natural’ in contemporary German health- and obesity-discourses.” Her academic interests are sociology of the body and food, theory of society, sociology of religion and qualitative methods of empirical social research.

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