Fuelling debate

Suddenly the media seems full of stories about the damaging effects of sugar. The understanding that it’s at the root of our obesity epidemic is spreading, and we are gradually realising that eating fat is not the reason we’re getting fat. One day we will laugh at the naive and simplistic thinking that spawned two generations of damaging public health policy: once we’ve finished clearing up the mess.

While those prepared to go back to first principles are seeing the light, there is still a majority of the medical and nutritional establishment insisting that we cannot live without dietary carbohydrate. It’s a stance that gives rise to a lot of fear and criticism around low-carb diets. But their argument is flawed.

Sugars and starches have been a significant part of our diet for the whole of the time that ‘scientific research’ has existed. With the result that most experiments have been designed around a diet rich in carbohydrate. So blind are they to the fact that carbohydrate may be the culprit that even those trials intended to study the effects of a high fat diet have still included a significant proportion of carbs. That, in itself, breaks a fundamental scientific rule. You must always try to isolate and eliminate confounding variables.

The result of this poor thinking – based on the flawed assumption that some carbohydrate is essential – has meant that whenever we have studied cellular behaviour in vivo it has been in the presence of glucose.

Scientists seem to believe that glucose is as essential as oxygen. But it’s not. While proteins and fats both contain molecules that the body can’t live without (essential fats and amino acids), there is absolutely no need for us to ingest glucose in order to survive.

Still some will argue that mere survival is not the goal; we can’t expect the body to live on the verge of starvation by excluding carbohydrate foods from the diet. And many scientists agree that the metabolic state induced by the absence of glucose – ketosis – is a form of starvation. They point to the fact that, given a choice, our cells will use carbohydrates before fat to fuel energy needs: therefore glucose must be the body’s ‘preferred’ fuel.

That seems like a reasonable argument until you learn that, given a choice between making energy from alcohol, carbohydrate or fat, the body will use alcohol first.

So is alcohol the body’s preferred fuel? Of course not.

To settle this argument once and for all you would need to commission a research trial, but my nutritional knowledge is prompting me to look for another answer: one that trusts the body’s natural intelligence.

What if the body burns its available fuel in order of toxicity? That would be intelligent, wouldn’t it? How would that work?

If that were true it would explain why alcohol – a molecule which we all know is toxic and addictive – is metabolised first and detoxified.

The same logic would then ask why glucose is burned next. Well, we are starting to understand exactly how toxic it can be. Excess sugar in the blood is now linked to diabetes, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, syndrome X, fatty liver disease, obesity and many other conditions. Recent studies are also supporting the idea that it’s highly addictive. That sounds like a good reason for the body to get rid of it quickly.

So maybe the body leaves fats until last because while they are waiting in line they do the least amount of damage. They are also the most energy dense molecule of all and eating them triggers satiety signals rather than addiction.

Now all we need is for someone to do the research.

Don’t hold your breath.

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