A stealthy death by a sugary dagger

Perhaps you’ve heard. We’re killing ourselves with sweetness.

According to a highly publicized report from the University of California-Davis, Dr. Robert Lustig has been right all along. Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, has been the voice in the wilderness, trying to alert us that sugar is killing us.

The study backed up Lustig’s claims that excess consumption of high-fructose corn syrup dangerously increases artery-clogging cholesterol. And don’t feel smug and secure if you eschew “corn sugar.” Lustig says that sugar in any form is toxic. There’s a link among sugar, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, even cancer.

This is bad news in our house.

I live with a sugar addict. I like sweets myself. We don’t sit around popping Sweet Tarts all afternoon, but we love our hot beverages sweet. Together, we have been known to wipe out the raw sugar packets at our favorite coffee joint, and to ask for more.

What’s insidious is that our ultra-sweet coffee and tea isn’t the biggest issue. There’s sugar added to everything these days.

I just went to the pantry and looked at a few random items:

Canned green beans (hate ’em, but my guy loves ’em): one gram per serving.

Canned cream-style sweet corn (hate it only slightly less): seven grams per serving.

Organic vegetable soup: six grams per serving.

Light honey-mustard salad dressing: seven grams per serving.

Cereal: 11 grams per serving.

Mac and cheese: eight grams per serving.

Pop Tarts: 15 grams per serving (That’s not a surprise. With Pop Tarts, you deserve what you get.)

Bread crumbs: two grams per serving

Get the picture? How are we going to avoid extra sugar when it’s stuffed into almost every single thing we eat? According to the experts, no- and low-fat foods are even worse. They pile on extra sweeteners to make up for the taste lost when the fat is reduced. Low-fat food will make you fat. And sick.

What’s the answer? Dr. Lustig says we should avoid processed foods. No soda. No fast foods. No dinner from a box.

This requires learning to cook again. That idea scares me. I’m not a terrible cook, but I’m not a good one. I was raised in the everything’s-better-with-more-butter school of Midwestern cooking. As life got busier, cooking became more of an ordeal, and an intimidating one at that.

Enter Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn. The author of the bestselling The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry is a Cordon Bleu graduate. But Kitchen Counter isn’t about being a gourmet chef. It’s not trying to appeal to an exclusive club of foodies.

This book offers basic tips to shop smarter, cook healthier, and become more confident in the kitchen. It’s simple stuff, really — trusting your taste buds, learning what flavors go together, knowing the right way to use a knife. But it’s liberation between the hard covers of a book.

Emboldened by Kitchen Counter, I’ve experimented with vegetables, tossing together spices and ingredients that made sense but didn’t appear in one particular recipe.

What happens when you commit to creating healthy meals out of whole foods? There’s a bonus beyond having control of what ingredients are included, I’ve found. There’s a real sense of accomplishment. There’s the satisfaction of knowing you’re creating wholesome, nutritious meals while supporting local agriculture.

Try it. It’s sweet.


What sugar does

According to research, Americans eat almost 130 pounds of added sugars each year. That doesn’t mean we’re pouring sugar on everything we eat. It’s already there.

Pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig believes the main reason obese children get sick is due to the amount of sugar in their diet. According to Lustig, high sugar ingestion leads to obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

A new UC-Davis study also showed that calories from added sugars are different from calories in other foods. Nutritional biologist Kimber Stanhope told CBS News that the liver gets overloaded with fructose and then converts it to fat. This fat then gets into the bloodstream and creates “small dense LDL,” which forms plaque in the arteries.

Eric Stice, a neuroscientist at the Oregon Research Institute, said that sugar is also extremely addictive — similar to drugs like cocaine. Stice conducted MRI scans of frequent soda drinkers, ice-cream eaters and other sugar lovers, and found that eating more sweet foods builds up a tolerance. The more sugar a person consumes, he said, the less satisfaction that person feels — resulting in eating more and more.

CBS News also spoke with Jim Simon, who sits on the board of the Sugar Association, about those condemning studies. He said that eliminating sugar in a diet is placing the blame on just one food, rather than promoting a healthy lifestyle of low-calorie consumption and regular exercise. “To say that the American consuming public is going to completely omit [and] eliminate sweeteners out of their diet I don’t think gets us there,” Simon told CBS News.

Pet med ethics

Just because you can do something medically, should you? Particularly when the patient is an animal?

We’re a household of aging cats. Except for the feisty shelter kitten we brought home last year, everyone’s a geezer. One has arthritis. Another is on daily meds for hypothyroidism. And yet another just had surgery for a hernia.

A visit to the vet’s office is never less than $300, and usually more like $500. There’s flea and tick repellant, blood tests, dental work, vaccinations and the range of illnesses that come with age.

Our latest visit revealed a new tool in the modern veterinarian’s arsenal. A very elderly, nearly motionless dog was being treated with a laser while we waited for our appointment. The laser, we were told, reduces inflammation and pain.

“It’s a great tool for chronic conditions as well as post-op healing,” we were told.

After the procedure (painless, we’re told) the dog lay sprawled across his owner’s lap. If ever an animal looked like there was no joy in his life whatsoever, it was him.

I’ve had animals all my life, dogs, cats, horses, even a donkey. I’ve been faced with enormous vet bills and I’ve scraped together the money when it was necessary. But how much is necessary?

There was an extensive discussion on the ethics of spending $25,000 for pet health care in The New York Times on April 9. Advances in medical technology have made procedures possible that simply weren’t in a veterinarian’s arsenal before, unless you took your pet to a high-tech facility like Cornell. Heart stents for Fido and chemo for Kitty are becoming routine offers. But there’s a price, and not just in dollars.

If we agree to a major medical intervention for our companions, is it really for them?

I know a couple who recently took their aging Yorkie to Cornell for surgery on his cataracts. The outcome is great — he can see and he’s a happy (though still neurotic) little dog. But I question the days in a hospital, pain, bandages, strange smells, major upheaval for a nervous animal and long days at home in a spaceman collar, confined as he was to a small area, frustrated, confused and uncomfortable. Would it have been kinder to simply let him be a blind dog? Who was that surgery for?

My crankiest old cat is arthritic. He’s also slowly failing. The signs are there: he sleeps more, he’s grumpier with the other cats, sometimes his breathing seems funny. How much should I intervene? I delayed taking him to the vet for fear they’d be pushing batteries of tests that would only tell me what was already obvious, while stressing out an old cat who just wants to sit quietly and be petted.

Thankfully, a new veterinarian in the area who seems to be on my wave length: Don’t overdo the interventions for geriatric animals, depending on the overall health picture. Dr. Eileen Jefferson has started a practice called “Ethical Veterinary.” Her partner and right-hand man is Brian Shapiro, former head of the Ulster County SPCA and a former county legislator.

They make house calls. She examined my cranky cat, pronounced him pretty fit for his age. She came prepared to do the gamut of labwork if needed, but she saw no red alerts. She offered some joint supplements to ease his stiffness and recommended he be allowed to simply be so long as he seems comfortable with no major changes. He stumped off with a definite I-told-you-so swing of his tail.

It’s a fine line. When our animals are miserable, when their futures seem to hold nothing but needles, drugs, scalpels and discomfort (even pain), is it cruel to keep them with us? The one thing we can offer them is a painless death, something we still cannot offer humans, even when we can’t control their pain or avert the inevitable. It’s an incredibly hard decision to euthanize our animal friends, and yet it’s a final gift, too. It’s not something to be done lightly, but I have been in situations where it’s the right choice.

My suffering cat, whose lust for biting kneecaps and diamond rings has descended into glassy-eyed lethargy, showed me when he’d had enough. My beloved dog, who could no longer stand up, made it clear it was time. Quality of life is what counts, in my opinion. Even if I had all the money in the world to try some expensive intervention, it wouldn’t have been right. The bottom line isn’t about me — it’s about them.