Sugar’s impact on your health may be reversible, according to an exciting, but small, new study. (Photo: Getty Images)
When it comes to health, added sugar has been enemy No.1 for years. But surprising new research has found the negative health impacts of to much sugar may be reversible — within days.
The new study, which was published in the journal Obesity, followed 43 obese children and found that removing added sugar from their diet dramatically improved their blood pressure, cholesterol, and other metabolic indicators of health after just 10 days.
For the study — which was small, but rigorously controlled — researchers swapped foods with added sugar from the participants’ diets for starchy foods with the same amount of calories that had no added sugar. Yogurt was replaced with bagels, for example, and pastries were swapped for baked potato chips.
While the children’s weight remained the same after 10 days, they showed a huge improvement in metabolic markers of health. Those markers specifically included:
Diastolic blood pressure (the pressure in the heart when it rests between beats which is used as a marker of pre-hypertension),
LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol levels
Glucose tolerance (the body’s ability to break down sugar)
“I was surprised at how much the kids got better, and in such a short period of time,” lead study author Robert Lustig, MD, a professor of pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at University of California, San Francisco, tells Yahoo Health.
Lustig says one of his colleagues joked that he must have “spit in the tubes” because “if I were making these data up, they couldn’t be better than what they are.”
The quick turnaround shows that the harmful effects of sugar can be reversed, he says — depending on severe the problem is. “If you get fatty liver and that’s all, you can reverse it by reducing your sugar consumption, eating properly, and exercising,” he says. “But if you have it with inflammation and scarring, the scarring will never go away. There’s a point of no return.”
Good news for adults: Lustig says the same can be true for us as well. “We have every reason to expect that adults would see the same benefits,” he says.
But Naim Alkhouri, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital and medical director of the Metabolic Liver Disease Clinic, tells Yahoo Health that he’s concerned people will think cutting back on sugar is the only answer for preventing childhood obesity.
“People are trying to find one single thing to blame the obesity epidemic on,” he says. “But it’s multifactorial.”
Alkhouri says he’s also surprised at the quick turnaround shown by patients in the study, but says it’s not shocking. He points to research he conducted that was published in The Journal of Pediatrics earlier this year that found obese children who were put on a plant-based diet had significant health improvements within 28 days.
Alkhouri says the overall message is the same: Eliminating or dramatically reducing added sugar from a child’s diet is important for their overall health. However, he adds, losing weight, eating a balanced diet, and exercise are also vital. “Fructose isn’t the cause of all the problems we have with health,” he says.
Lustig agrees that removing added sugar isn’t the lone answer to improving our overall health, but says his research indicates that sugar is a large problem in the development of metabolic syndrome (a health condition linked with the development of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease). “It may not be the only contributor, but it’s one primary contributor and it’s modifiable — you can modify it today, if you choose.”
Lustig acknowledges that his study size wasn’t large, but says the results still stand on their own. “It’s not like some kids did well and others didn’t,” he says. “Everyone did well.”