This Just In: Extra Calories Make People Gain Weight!

Eating More Fructose Than Nature Intended Is Also Probably a Bad Idea

I recent­ly read an arti­cle about a study that sup­pos­ed­ly found that high-fruc­tose corn syrup had a dif­fer­ent effect on the body than did “reg­u­lar sug­ar.” This made lit­tle sense, because high-fruc­tose corn syrup is only slight­ly high­er in fruc­tose than table sug­ar is. In fact, the study said exact­ly noth­ing about any dif­fer­ence between table sug­ar and high-fruc­tose corn syrup. On the oth­er hand, it did say that drink­ing a lot of sug­ar water can make you gain weight real­ly fast.

Dur­ing diges­tion, table sug­ar is rapid­ly bro­ken down to a 50:50 mix­ture of two sim­ple sug­ars: glu­cose and fruc­tose. High-fruc­tose corn syrup is a 45:55 mix­ture of glu­cose and fruc­tose. Not much dif­fer­ence. How­ev­er, the study wasn’t a com­par­i­son of high-fruc­tose corn syrup ver­sus what an ordi­nary per­son would think of as “reg­u­lar sug­ar,” it com­pared huge dos­es of pure fruc­tose to huge dos­es of pure glucose—a major dif­fer­ence.

In real­i­ty, the study showed three things. First, peo­ple can gain weight real­ly fast if they drink a huge amount of watery syrup, which pro­vides a lot of calo­ries while doing very lit­tle to sat­is­fy the appetite. Sec­ond, a calo­rie is a calo­rie. Peo­ple gain weight just as effec­tive­ly if they get extra calo­ries from fruc­tose or glu­cose. Third, fruc­tose has dif­fer­ent effects on the body’s metab­o­lism than glu­cose has, but we already knew that. None of these results were sur­pris­ing, so none of the find­ings of this study were actu­al­ly news­wor­thy to the gen­er­al pub­lic. The jour­nal­ists who wrote about this sto­ry made it sound news­wor­thy by mis­in­ter­pret­ing it.

Thanks to the mag­ic of the Inter­net and the Nation­al Library of Med­i­cine, I was able to find the actu­al arti­cle for myself. The sub­jects in the study first spent two weeks in a clin­i­cal research cen­ter, eat­ing “an ener­gy-bal­anced, high–complex car­bo­hy­drate (55%) diet.” Of course, 55% of calo­ries from com­plex car­bo­hy­drates isn’t “high” in com­plex car­bo­hy­drates by my stan­dards, but so what?

After spend­ing two weeks eat­ing the con­trolled diet, the sub­jects were sent home for an eight-week out­pa­tient study, in which they were allowed to eat what­ev­er they want­ed, as long as they drank enough of a sweet­ened bev­er­age to give them 25% of their calo­rie require­ments. Some of the sub­jects were giv­en a bev­er­age sweet­ened with pure fruc­tose (not high-fruc­tose corn syrup), the oth­ers were giv­en a bev­er­age sweet­ened with glu­cose.

As a result of guz­zling all that sug­ar water, the peo­ple in both groups took in more calo­ries than they need­ed. In fact, peo­ple in both groups took in rough­ly the same num­ber of extra calo­ries and gained rough­ly the same amount of extra weight as a result. That wasn’t sur­pris­ing, although it was inter­est­ing that the extra fat tend­ed to get deposit­ed in dif­fer­ent places, depend­ing on which kind of sug­ar was con­sumed. Nor was it sur­pris­ing that the fruc­tose bev­er­ages caused spikes in the amount of fat (triglyc­erides) in the blood after meals. Sci­en­tists already knew that fruc­tose does that. They’ve also known for decades that high lev­els of fat in the blood con­tribute to insulin resis­tance, which in fact occurred among the peo­ple who drank all that extra fruc­tose.

Although the study does sug­gest that eat­ing too much fruc­tose can be bad for you, it didn’t say any­thing about whether high-fruc­tose corn syrup was sig­nif­i­cant­ly worse than table sug­ar. In fact, a com­men­tary that accom­pa­nied the arti­cle said, “It is not known whether the adverse effects of sucrose and HFCS con­sump­tion are ‘dilut­ed’ by their low­er fruc­tose con­tent rel­a­tive to pure fruc­tose.” The com­men­tary does make it clear that if you are eat­ing too much fruc­tose, you prob­a­bly aren’t get­ting it from eat­ing too much fruit. “One would have to eat vast quan­ti­ties of fruits every day in order to ingest meta­bol­i­cal­ly adverse amounts of dietary fruc­tose.”

The take-home mes­sage for con­sumers wasn’t clear from the news accounts, but it’s very sim­ple. It’s hard to over­dose on fruc­tose from eat­ing fruit, but drink­ing syrup-water isn’t good for you.

2 thoughts on “This Just In: Extra Calories Make People Gain Weight!”

  1. Talk­ing about sugar…If you are a veg­an, it is good to eat cere­al. Isn’t there too much sug­ar in the cere­al? On the Cere­al box, it states that it is rec­om­mend­ed by the Amer­i­can Heart Asso­ci­a­tion. What does it means? How reli­able are they?


  2. The term “veg­an” means that a per­son avoids eat­ing any food that comes from ani­mals or using any oth­er prod­ucts that come from ani­mals. The moti­va­tion is to avoid con­tribut­ing to ani­mal suf­fer­ing. Obvi­ous­ly, a per­son who fol­lows a veg­an lifestyle would eat a com­plete­ly plant-based diet. How­ev­er, there are lots of “junk foods” that don’t con­tain any ani­mal prod­ucts. Just because it’s “veg­an” doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

    In choos­ing a cere­al, I look for one that is made of whole grains (for the fiber) and that doesn’t have too much added sug­ar. I eat a lot of oat­meal, to which I add a few raisins and some cin­na­mon. Some­times I cook an apple with the oat­meal. Some peo­ple (i.e., those with aller­gies or celi­ac dis­ease) have to be care­ful about which grains they eat.

    Many years ago, Dr. Wal­ter Kemp­n­er found that he could help his patients who had kid­ney, liv­er, and heart prob­lems by teach­ing them to eat a diet that con­sist­ed of rice and fruit. If the patient lost too much weight on this diet, he’d encour­age them to add some sug­ar.

    I’m not favor­ably impressed by the Amer­i­can Heart Association’s rec­om­men­da­tions. They are fail­ing to tell peo­ple to reduce their fat intake enough to make them heart-attack proof. They could save many more lives by telling peo­ple to keep their total cho­les­terol below 150 mg/dL, which is easy if your fat intake is less than 10% of total calo­ries. Nev­er­the­less, the cere­als they rec­om­mend are prob­a­bly pret­ty good.

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