Dr. Robert Lustig gave a lecture at KQED titled: Sweet Revenge: Turning the Tables on Processed Food. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Dr. Robert Lustig gave a lecture at KQED titled: Sweet Revenge: Turning the Tables on Processed Food. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Before the New York Times asked if sugar was toxic, before Michael Bloomberg tried to ban large sodas in New York City, before people starting calling sugar “the new tobacco,” UCSF endocrinologist Robert Lustig stood in front of a crowd of UCSF extension students and told them that the increase in obesity over the last 30 years is the result of one thing: increased amounts of sugar in our diet. Lustig’s lecture—a combination of righteous anger and dry science—went on to become a surprise viral hit: since it debuted on YouTube in 2009, it’s been viewed almost five million times.

That lecture was just the beginning of Lustig’s campaign to prove that sugar is the cause of the rise of obesity and other dangerous diseases. He wrote a New York Times bestseller, 2012’s Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, and came out with a companion cookbook The Fat Chance Cookbook: More Than 100 Recipes Ready in Under 30 Minutes to Help You Lose the Sugar and the Weight, in December of 2013. Recently, he spoke at KQED for a special presentation (airing in October) called “Sweet Revenge: Turning the Tables on Processed Food.”

Lustig’s popularity can partially be attributed to his message that obesity is the result of a broken food system—not laziness or gluttony. For many people, who’ve been told for years that if they simply had more willpower, they’d be guaranteed thinness and good health, his message is a relief.

One of those people is Cindy Gershen. When Lustig met Gershen, the owner of Walnut Creek’s Sunrise Bistro, she was 100 pounds overweight. After meeting Lustig and following his eating advice, she lost the weight and started teaching a nutrition class at Concord’s Mt. Diablo High School, where many of her students have undergone similar weight loss transformations. In 2007, she created the Wellness City Challenge, a healthy living advocacy group that encouraged restaurants to remove trans fats and citizens to exercise.

Cindy Gershen and Dr. Robert Lustig co-wrote  The Fat Chance Cookbook. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Cindy Gershen and Dr. Robert Lustig co-wrote The Fat Chance Cookbook. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Gershen, who developed the recipes for last year’s Fat Chance cookbook, described Lustig’s message as a revelation: “I tried every kind of dieting. They said decrease your calories; increase your exercise; you’re lazy; you’re stressed out. And then I met Dr. Lustig. He said it was none of those things. It was all the sugar and it was a lack of fiber. I changed my food to the things that he told me to do. I’ve lost 100 pounds; I’ve restored my vitality, my health, and I’m happy.”

Lustig instead attributes the rise in obesity (increasing one percent every year) and other related health problems to the rise of sugary processed foods. His catchphrase—repeated throughout his lecture and his books— is that a calorie is not a calorie. Our body processes different types of fats and carbs in radically different ways. Take fat. There are good fats, like the omega-3 fatty acids (found in wild fish and flax,) and bad fats, like omega-6 fatty acid found in corn-fed beef. Omega-3s reduce inflammation and repair membranes, whereas omega-6s cause inflammation and increases risk of health problems like arthritis and cancer.

We Get Too Much...Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
We Get Too Much…Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

The same goes for carbs. There are good carbs, like lactose, the sugar found in milk, or fiber-heavy foods like vegetables and whole grains. But the worst carb of all, says Lustig, is sugar. It’s omnipresent in our food supply (77% of the foods in the America food supply include added sugar), and plays a huge role in metabolic syndrome, which leads to diseases like diabetes: Lustig cited a study that showed while eating an extra 150 calories per day did not increase diabetes prevalence worldwide, if those calories came from soda, diabetes prevalence went up 11-fold for the same number of calories.

We Get Too Little...Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
We Get Too Little…Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

The negative effects sugar has on our bodies are staggering: sugar alters our hormones so we don’t register hunger the way we normally would, making us eat more; it spikes our dopamine, making us requiring us to eat more sugar for the same effect; and it affects our liver in the same way that alcohol does. We consume an astounding 18 bags of sugar per year, and half of that is added sugar, hidden away in our ketchup and potato chips under names like brown rice syrup and fruit puree (last year, Lustig wrote an ebook called Sugar Has 56 Names: A Shopper’s Guide). And even if we tried to cut down on sugar, food companies have every incentive to keep us from doing just that: sugar is a cheap preservative that extends food’s shelf life and keeps prices low.

Listening to Lustig’s lecture, it’s easy to feel powerless, or think back guiltily to the honey in your tea or the granola you ate with your yogurt this morning (“Granola,” Lustig said sternly, “is a dessert.”). Yet, there are things we can do to fix what Lustig calls our “toxic food environment.”

Dr. Robert Lustig's Toxic Clean-Up Tips. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Dr. Robert Lustig’s Toxic Clean-Up Tips. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

The most valuable change, he says, is shifting your diet to one low in sugar and high in fiber. You don’t need to skip every birthday cake or break room muffin, but toss the soda and juice (which is just as bad as soda, according to Lustig) and start eating more vegetables and whole grains. Lustig cited the famous Michael Pollan maxim to “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” but told the audience to focus on the first part of the sentence—focusing on eating real food, he said, the kind your grandmother would recognize, is the most efficient way to better health.

Lustig, a former college actor, has a flair for the dramatic. At the beginning of his lecture at KQED, he promised to “change your whole thinking about obesity, diets, and what really causes many of our most dangerous diseases.” It’s a bold claim, especially when we’re awash in diets all claiming to be the healthiest choice, with the high fat Paleo crowd competing against the low fat diet advocates (A debate which Lustig is ambivalent on: they’re both healthy, he said, but he has no preference for any particular diet as long as it’s high fiber, low sugar and free of processed foods.)

Yet, even if you’re one of the millions who watched Lustig’s original lecture, or you’ve read one of the countless articles about cutting your sugar intake, there’s still much to be gained from reading Lustig’s books, or watching his KQED lecture when it airs in October. Lustig has the ability to distill complex biological processes into simple explanations, the case studies from his work illuminate the misconceptions we have about obesity (it’s hard to argue that obesity is a personal choice when confronted with an obese six month old), and perhaps most importantly, the ability to inspire hope about an issue that often seems impossible to fix.

It’s easy to watch a YouTube video and resolve to drink less juice. It’s not as easy to get large swathes of people to stop buying soda, to reform school lunch menus or make unprocessed food more accessible to lower income populations. Yet watching Lustig talk about the injustices in our food system, his Brooklyn accent growing thicker the faster and more passionately he speaks, gives you hope. Our government may not care that they’re drowning us in sugar. The companies that sell us our food certainly don’t. But Lustig does, and he’s not going to stop talking until people listen.

Lustig’s Dos and Don’ts


  • Shop the edges of the store, not aisles for real food
  • Eat more omega-3 fatty acids, found in wild fish and flax
  • Eat fruit as dessert, and if you’re craving cookies or cake, make your own
  • Increase consumption of micronutrients, the vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables
  • Up your fiber intake. Fiber protects your liver from sugar, says Lustig, and keeps you from overeating.
  • Eat more whole grains like farro, quinoa, steel-cut oats, hulled barley or brown rice

  • Drink your calories. Avoid soda, sports drinks and juice
  • Shop hungry—it leads to poor food choices
  • Eat anything with “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. That means it contains trans fat, which our bodies can’t metabolize and ends up lining our arteries.
  • Buy anything that has sugar as one of the first three ingredients
  • Eat corn fed beef or farmed fish. Corn oil contains omega 6 fatty acids, which lead to inflammation
  • Buy processed food. “If it comes with a label,” says Lustig, “think of it as a warning label.”
Sweet Revenge: Dr. Robert Lustig Explains How to Cut Sugar, Lose Weight and Turn the Tables On Processed Foods 8 April,2015Shelby Pope

  • Paul Byatt

    I love sugar. It is in my blood and gives me the quick energy I need to ride my bicycle, body surf, ski, water ski and run. Sugar is natural, like salt, fats, and caffiene and oxygen. Like anything else, it just. Needs to be managed, not denigrated or abolished or satanized. Then again. Humans do need something to believe in that is social, like religion, global warming, and dietary extremes, no matter they are not verifiable.

    • feardorchamacgabhann

      You do because you’re addicted to it, as most people are. You do not need it for any exercise, after a period of adjustment. Quitting it will ultimately be best for your health and it’ll take a few months to get used to it. I did and I exercise lots..

    • s. zorin

      You tell us, how did the humans throughout the millennia managed to build Stonehenge, the pyramids, the Chinese Wall, the cathedrals, build cities, roads and empires, sailed the oceans and all other physically very demanding tasks when the production of refined sugar for the masses started only in the 19th century ? Where did they get “the quick energy” from ? Explain this to us. Your words “sugar is natural like salt…” is a lie and a demagoguery. Sugar is natural substance BUT NOT IN THE REFINED FORM KNOWN AS REFINED INDUSTRIALLY MADE SUGAR. GET IT ? Complex sugar molecules are natural “sugar”, not the cancerous toxic substances known as ‘refined sugars’ which you gobble up and defend like somebody with an impaired brain. These complex sugars have been always consumed with high intake of fiber rich foods and in certain proportions to proteins and fiber. Fiber in food slows down absorption of sugar into bloodstream and even removes some of it out of the body. Today the heavily processed food, which is fiber deprived, is spiked with refined sugars to the point that what you eat is practically 50% processed sugar.
      There is a study which shows that regular intake of unnecessary sugar causes brain damage – http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2014/07/30/more-evidence-that-sugar-may-be-bad-for-brain-health/
      Your comment offers a solid proof that it is indeed the case.

      • Paul Byatt

        Sugar from Honey, fruit, roots, Cane, sap, nectar, etc is still sugar. Sugar produced from starches is still sugar. Refined sugar is compact and readily available for quick energy. Yes, excesses from any of these sources over the calories you burn can be harmful. Calling sugar the devil condemns them all.

        • s. zorin

          I just did some readings on the Middle Ages. A typical diet of most people consisted of bread, milk, cheese, nuts, eggs, occasional meat, vegetables [a lot of cabbage], apples. “Sugar” was unknown, honey was pretty expensive and was not eaten on regular basis, it was a treat. They did not have the travesty of bread which is white sugary bread of today one can see in every food store. The people of the Middle Ages managed to live and do heavy physical work on minimal intake of sugar. There was no machinery then, working meant doing heavy physical labor. If our ancestors lived, built and procreated on minimal intake of sugar then you can do the same. You are addicted to this substance and therefore you make rationalizations why you have to keep indulging in sugary foods. You deliberately obfuscate complex slow digesting sugars, like in heavy black breads and much eaten in the past, with the refined sugars of today. Saying they are all sugars and therefore it does not matter how much of them one consumes is like saying we should not jail murderers because they are human like those who do not commit murders.

    • GatorGirl43

      You are absolutely right, except for the part about sugar being natural. Some sugar, like honey or even sugar cane is. But have you read about what is necessary to do to the corn to extract the corn syrup? First, most of the corn grown in Iowa is inedible. The round-up resistant GMO corn they use is not the same corn you buy to boil and eat on the cob and is approximately 80+% of the corn grown in the US. Then to turn it into HFCS (not something you can do in your kitchen) they have to ‘refine’ it using enzymes and chemicals including mercury and chlor-alkilis.

      So, I think saying sugar just needs to be managed is akin to saying just ‘manage’ the amount of heroin or cocaine you add to your food. I think that holds true for the natural sugars, such as the fructose bound up the fiber of fruit, and honey, even the sugar in corn is fine (when eaten as corn). But, all the added sugar in the processed foods? Back before we had cheap sugar, it was “managed”. You knew when you were having a ‘sweet’. You added a teaspoon to your coffee or tea. Or were lucky to have a slice of cake or a cookie. Now its everywhere including things we would never think.

      Moreover, I would propose that we demand that companies label how much “added sugar” they put into their food as opposed to the entire sugar content. I know yogurt contains natural milk sugars. I want them to tell me how much they added to make it a “dessert”, and not a breakfast. Why do we allow baby food and infant formula makers to add as much sugar as a Coca Cola into their products? An infant cannot “manage” their sugar intake. What parent would give an infant 3-4 Cokes a day? But they essentially are.

      So, I wouldn’t call this realization that corporate and monied interests have commandeered our food supply and replaced healthy, natural, whole foods with genetically and chemically modified “food like substances” as dietary extreme. They are the extreme.

      So, a little bit of real sugar. Absolutely. Processed “food like substances”? Not at all. And I certainly think it IS fair to denigrate that, particularly when they purposefully engineer the foods to be palatable, addictive and unhealthy and then market to children.

    • Amy Lawson

      There are plenty of “natural” substances that are poisonous — certain mushrooms, for example. To say that sugar is “natural” and therefore good to eat makes no sense, therefore. This video has the real science, data, evidence, about the differences between sugars (table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, verses glucose) and how they are metabolized by the body. Watch it, and base your choices on real evidence, rather than ignorance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM

    • What most people don’t do, “ride my bicycle, body surf, ski, water ski and run.”
      Personal statistics (weight, bmi, cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate) are not necessarily a belief system (re: your last sentence).
      Happy surfing!

  • MBUFootballDad

    Hey peeps! If you’re having trouble losing weight or controlling your weight, listen up. This is for real!!! I have lost 12 pounds in just a little over a month from my maximum weight of 249 down to 237 now and dropping more every week, simply by limiting the grams of sugar I ingest each day. I have been exercising moderately for years now with little success… That is until now.

    One month ago, I started limiting my intake of all forms of sugar to no more than 25 grams per day and if it has a label on it, and if the grams
    of sugar are higher than the grams of fiber, I won’t eat or drink it… period! Read labels and question everything about what you buy for yourself and your family. When you dine out, ask about a food’s ingredients and ask specifically about sugar content. Exercise is great for your heart but you will never get ahead of the curve until you become aware of how many grams of sugar you’re putting in your body every day.

    Four key things to remember:
    1) Four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon, 2) The higher a food’s fiber
    content, the better it will help your body process sugar without shocking your
    liver into converting the excess sugar and storing it as fat. Yep! That’s
    right! Your own liver will turn excess sugar into fat. It does this to mitigate the toxic effects in
    your bloodstream, 3) Don’t drink diet sodas thinking you are cutting calories
    to lose weight because they contain ingredients that stimulate hormones in your
    body to slow your metabolism, increase your appetite and sabotage your weight
    loss efforts, and 4) Regular store bought bread is NOT… I repeat NOT your
    friend. One slice of regular white bread can contain as much as two teaspoons
    of sugar and wheat bread isn’t much better. If you have a “Sprouts” store in your community, they carry
    breads that are lower in sugar, carbs, etc.

    Finally, if you have Netflix, I highly recommend viewing the program titled “Fed Up”. This documentary clearly explains the toxic effects of consuming excess sugar and the relationship between obesity and excess sugar. Watching this program may just save your
    life!!! It will most certainly help your waistline.


Shelby Pope

Shelby Pope is a freelance writer living and eating her way through the East Bay. She’s written about food, art and science for publications including the Smithsonian, Lucky Peach, and the Washington Post’s pet blog. When she’s not taste testing sourdough bread to find the Bay Area’s best loaf, you can find her on Twitter @shelbylpope or at shelbypope.com


Wendy Goodfriend

I am the Senior Interactive Producer for KQED Food. I have designed and produced food-related websites and blogs for KQED including Bay Area Bites; Check, Please! Bay Area;  Taste This; Jacques Pepin’s websites; Weir Cooking in the City and KQED Food. When I am not creating and managing food websites I am taking photos and video of Bay Area Life and designing online navigation systems. My professional education and training includes: clinical psychology, photography, commercial cooking, web design, information architecture and UX. You can find me engaged in social media on Twitter @bayareabites and on Facebook at Bay Area Bites. I can also be found photoblogging at look2remember.

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