By Monica Eng, Tribune Newspapers
January 16, 2013
Now that the holiday cookies have become stale but the New Year's resolutions are still fresh, it's a safe time to break out Dr. Robert Lustig's just-released book "Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease" (Hudson Street Press, $25.95).
In it, the University of California endocrinologist, whose YouTube lecture (Sugar: The Bitter Truth) has been watched more than 3 million times, expands his subject matter to address the nation's obesity crisis and how he believes we can get out of it, personally and as a society.
Along the way Lustig skewers the processed-food industry and what he sees as a government complicit with the food industry in promoting dangerous dietary practices. To illustrate the issues, the pediatric endocrinologist cites many peer-reviewed studies as well as case studies from his own practice. He breaks down complex biochemical processes into understandable chunks and presents a grocery list of staples to stock (and avoid) in your home.
Boiled down to its essence, Lusting's dietary advice urges us to avoid simple carbs and sugar, seek out fiber and cook our own meals from whole ingredients. His policy advice is a little more complicated.
We recently chatted with the longtime physician after he finished a grueling round of finals for a master's in the study of law he is pursuing as a means of better influencing public food policy. This is an edited version of the conversation.
Q. So for those 3 million who watched your YouTube lecture, what more can they learn here?
A. The video was really strictly about sugar and its role in metabolic syndrome and how that related to obesity. But the book is about two things: It's about the science of weight gain and appetite and chronic metabolic disease, and how the food industry has hijacked that science for their own purposes. We need to know what we can do personally and as a society to try to reverse it.
And the entire book, every single statement, is backed up by hard science. Everything is referenced so that scientists, my physician colleagues and, hopefully, politicians and Washington can learn from it.
Q. After years of practicing medicine you have gone back to school for a master's in law. Why?
A. While writing the book, it became painfully obvious that the legislative and executive branches of government, Congress and the White House, are completely co-opted by the food industry. They can't get us out of this mess because there is too much money riding on it. Six percent of our exports are food, so our government cannot admit that there is anything wrong with the food supply.
So they have made their bed with the food industry, and the USDA and FDA have been co-opted. Since (the judicial branch) is not yet co-opted, then there is the chance that with appropriate litigation we can start making some headway. It worked with tobacco, which is marketed a hell of a lot differently than it used to be because of litigation. So I see a similar pattern here and pathway to societal improvement. To be able to participate in that and helpfully formulate new policy, I have to study the law.
Q. When you say formulate new policies, are you talking about taxes, limiting accessibility and more restrictive marketing?
A. It might take any and all of those forms. We don't know yet. We don't yet have evidence-based policies for food, but we have them for tobacco and alcohol, which I think is the best comparison. So we are going to have to do some of this on the fly. Industry says we aren't going to make any changes until we have to, and the government says we aren't going to do anything until all the data is in. But the problem is Medicare will be broke by 2024. The longer we wait the worse it will get.
Q. What are some of the basic changes you'd make to the government's dietary guidelines?
A. All food is inherently good. But I think what we do to the food is bad. If we ate real food, we wouldn't have this problem, but unfortunately ... we have a disaster called processed food. So I would promote, market and provide real food to people, but it is going to require big changes in the food industry, in distribution, sourcing, agriculture, menus and growing food more locally. A lot of those things are what the global warming people are talking about, and so a lot of the same things we can do here can help the global warming issue as well.
Q. So what is the take-away for the average consumer?
A. Anything that doesn't have a nutrition label is real food that hasn't been adulterated. As soon as there is one it means someone has done something to it. And the more you do to food, the more dangerous it gets, and that's what all the data shows. So that's why I have an example of what a food label could look like: instead of talking about what's in it we can talk about what's been done to it.
Q. It sounds like if someone wants to get healthy, cooking their own whole foods is going to be important.
A. Right, but everyone has forgotten how to cook. We've lost an entire generation of cooks because everybody went to fast food. That is a big problem. The American Heart Association is spending big bucks to try to get people to cook again. It's a big issue, and we actually have two pilot programs here in the East Bay to try to teach kids how to really cook and grow the vegetables in their own backyard. We need to bring back home ec.
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