Severely overweight kids who reduce their sugar intake see improvements in health markers such as blood pressure and cholesterol after just 10 days, a new study has found.
The new research is helping shed light on a question scientists have long argued about: Is sugar itself unhealthy, or is the weight gain that comes from consuming sugary drinks and foods mainly what contributes to ill health over the long term?
In the new study, (financed by the National Institutes of Health) and recently published in the journal Obesity, scientists designed an experiment to try and find an answer this question. They removed foods with added sugar from a group of kid’s diets and replaced them with other types of carbs so that the subjects’ weight and overall calorie intake remained similar.
After 10 days, the kids showed dramatic health improvements, but little or no weight loss. The findings reinforces the conclusion that all calories are not the same, and the results suggest that those from refined sugars are especially likely to contribute to Type 2 diabetes and other diseases, which are increasingly affecting children. This is according to the study’s lead author, Dr. Robert Lustig, a paediatric endocrinologist at the Benioff Children’s Hospital of the University in San Francisco, California.
[The research indicates that] we can turn a child’s metabolic health around in 10 days without changing calories and without changing weight – just by taking the added sugars out of their diet
Added sugars — the extra sweeteners food companies put in their products, including sodas and increasingly a wide variety of pre-packaged foods, (not the sugar that occurs naturally in foods like fruit) are a topic of growing debate. In February, the U.S. federal government’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended that Americans limit their intake of added sugars to no more than 10 percent of daily calories.
In 2014, the FDA put forward the recommendation that food companies information on their nutrition labels listing the amount of added sugars in their products. After the dietary guidelines committee issued its report earlier in 2015, the FDA expanded on its 2014 proposal, recommending that companies should also list a “daily percent value” for added sugars on their labels in line with the 10% recommendation.
The recommended changes have been opposed by the food industry as unscientific. The Sugar Association, a trade group, said the F.D.A. was “making assertions that lack adequate scientific evidence,” and the Grocery Manufacturers Association criticised the standards the agency used to establish the daily value as being “inadequate.”
The newly released study is well-timed in part because it lowered sugar intake among children to roughly 10% of daily calories – the amount recommended by the dietary guidelines committee.
The study involved 43 children between the ages of 9 and 18 who were considered at particularly high risk of diabetes and related disorders. All the subjects were black or Hispanic and obese, and had at least one or more symptoms of metabolic syndrome (a cluster of risk factors that includes hypertension, high blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol and excess body fat around the waist).
As an average, the subjects had been getting about 27 percent of their daily calories from sugar. By comparison, the average American takes in about 15 percent, though children typically consume much more than this in part because they have the highest intake of sugary beverages. Fast foods also play their part in what is increasingly being viewed as an epidemic of childhood obesity.
The study replaced the sugary foods in their diets with other foods purchased from local grocery stores. The goal was not to eliminate carbohydrates, but to reduce sugary foods and replace them with starchy foods without lowering body weight or calorie intake.
So rather than yogurt sweetened with sugar, the children ate bagels. Instead of sugary pastries, they were given baked potato chips. Instead of chicken teriyaki (which contains a lot of sugar) they ate turkey hot dogs or burgers for lunch. The remaining sugar in their diet came mostly from fresh fruit.
On average, the subjects’ LDL cholesterol (the kind implicated in heart disease), fell by 10 points. Their diastolic blood pressure fell five points. Their triglycerides, a type of fat that travels in the blood and contributes to heart disease, dropped 33 points. And their fasting blood sugar and insulin levels (indicators of their diabetes risk) also markedly improved.
Dr. Sonia Caprio, a pediatric endocrinologist and professor of paediatrics at Yale Medical School, said that although the study was small,
it addressed the issue in an original way and tried to isolate the effect of sugar on metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance.
She also stated that
This is an important area of research that might solve some of the metabolic issues that we are facing in children, particularly in adolescents, this study needs to be taken seriously, and we need to expand on it.