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Is Sugar Really Toxic?

On April 1, 2012, an episode of 60 Minutes discussed the idea that sugar is toxic. Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviewed Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, who cited sugar as the culprit for the serious health issues facing many Americans. It’s no secret that the incidence of diabetes and obesity has increased at alarming rates, and sugar is being cited as a cause. During the interview, Dr. Lustig referred to sugar as “toxic.” Many people have been in this camp for a long time, and now hearing it from a credible source makes it seem even more convincing.

Toxic is a strong word indeed.

From my own perspective as a nutrition professional and diabetes educator, I would agree that sugar consumption has negative implications for many people. People with diabetes and people who are overweight are well advised to get excess sugar out of their lives. But, I believe sugar is not the only dietary problem we have.  I agree with Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University Prevention Research Center who says that focusing on one dietary problem exclusively makes it all too easy to ignore the rest. While acknowledging that sugar is harmful, Dr. Katz says “It’s not the sugar that’s the poison, but the dose that makes the poison.”

The sad fact is that sugar is found in so many foods, most of us don’t realize the hefty dose of sugar we get on a daily basis. From soft drinks and desserts, to sauces and ketchup, added sugar in our food is just plain adding up everywhere! Trying to cut out all sugar from our diets could be a daunting task. A focus on the differences between added sugar and natural sugar could help you start sorting things out.

There are differences between naturally occurring sugar found in food, and sugar that has been added to foods. Knowing whether sugar is added or is in the food itself, could help you make better food choices and reduce your overall consumption. It’s the added sugar in food that usually puts the average American’s sugar intake over the top.

The natural sugar found in fruit, whole grains, milk, and certain vegetables are part of a healthy diet.  We still need to include those foods in our diets.

Let’s not forget that portion size also affects the amount of sugar we get on a daily basis. Too much of even a healthy food could cause us to get more sugar than we need.

In light of all we know about the deleterious effects of too much sugar, cutting down seems to be good advice for everyone. First, target the foods with added sugars: soft drinks, fruit juice drinks, desserts, certain cereals and packaged foods. Then while you’re at it, make sure your portion sizes are in check!

About The Author

Gretchen Scalpi

Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator

Author and Certified Wellcoach®

Gretchen has worked with hundreds of clients in her own private nutrition practice since 2002, providing nutrition and wellness coaching in the areas of diabetes, weight management, food sensitivities, and general wellness.

Gretchen opened her wellness coaching and private nutrition practice in 2002 and has expanded to two office locations in New York.

Gretchen provides lectures and workshops on a variety of nutrition topics to corporate and community groups. She is the author of the Pre-Diabetes: Your Second Chance at Health and The Everything Guide to Managing and Reversing Prediabetes.

For more information on Gretchen, visit