By: J. Justin Wilson
Newspaper: The Orange County Register 

As a nation, we’ve long had a fixation with “good” and “bad” foods. Butter was bad, eggs were bad, acai was good, fat was bad, carbs were bad. Salt has been called a “silent killer.” Now, according to public health activists, Pixy Stix are, basically, flavored cocaine.

What have they been smoking?

Writing in the British journal Nature, three researchers with UC San Francisco recently stated that sugar is “toxic” like alcohol or tobacco. Therefore, we need a strict government regime to impose sugar control – including age restrictions on soda, “sugar-free” zones around schools and candy taxation.

The researchers caution that they’re not accusing natural sugar, found in fruit, of being bad – they’re just claiming eating everything from apple cobbler to cotton candy is akin to smoking cigarettes.

Curiously, new research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that Americans are eating 3.5 percent fewer calories today than they were in 2000 and have cut their sugar intake by six teaspoons per day. That’s a voluntary change – which blows apart the notion of sugar’s “addictiveness.”

Fundamentally, the sugar-is-booze argument reflects the further cheapening of dietary information.

The trash heap of food recommendations is littered with bogus claims that once seemed reasonable. Remember when eggs were cholesterol bombs? Now they’re a nutrient-packed health food. Remember when butter was marginalized? People as a result ate more margarine, which has harmful trans fats.

We’re always looking for that one “superfood” or one simple rule to build our diets around. There actually is one simple rule, but it’s not about a specific food or ingredient. It’s about balancing calories.

If the number of calories you consume from food and drink exceed the calories you burn off, you will gain weight. Want to lose weight? Burn off more than you take in.

Recent research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the obesity “epidemic” seems to have leveled off the past few years. It’s not necessarily easy to lose weight, but people can do it.

On the other hand, we have researchers who compare candy with vodka. It’s great for getting your name in the news. But it does the public no good.

Consider also the case of salt. For years, the conventional wisdom has been that we’re eating too much salt and that it contributes to the risk of heart disease. Recently, though, the hyperbole has reached a new level.

“Salt is the single most dangerous ingredient in the food supply,” warns the often-hysterical Center for Science in the Public Interest. Similarly, CDC chief Thomas Frieden warns that “if you just eat the food that’s in front of you, will end up with high blood pressure.”

Looking at recent research, though, should make us wonder if our blood pressure isn’t affected more by these doomsday prophecies than salt.

A review of 167 studies published last fall in the American Journal of Hypertension found that sodium reduction was associated with significant increases in both cholesterol and blood triglycerides (fat) – both risk factors for cardiovascular disease. And a study in the same journal released in the summer used data from 6,500 patients and found that even a 50 percent salt reduction was not associated with a significant decrease in the risk of dying or cardiovascular disease.

The American Dietetic Association rejects the idea of good and bad foods, noting that “the total diet or overall pattern of food eaten is the most important focus of a healthful eating style.” That’s what responsible professional advocates should focus on – eating in moderation.