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How can something that tastes so good be so bad for you?
Dr. John weighs in on the high-fructose corn syrup debate

By John McElligott, MD

Your doctor will tell you how bad cigarettes are for you, not to use drugs, and how bad it is to drink too much alcohol or abuse your health with a terrible diet of processed food and snacks. What many doctors don’t take the time to tell you is that there is a substance you probably put in your mouth every single day that tastes really good but should be avoided at all costs.

The substance I am telling you about in this column is high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. It’s a replacement for sugar that first began making an appearance in our food in the 1970s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says in 1970 only 15 percent of Americans were obese. Now, even our children battle weight gain.

What is the problem? Sure, there are other factors, but many of us in the medical community think the substance our processed food manufacturers began to use as a cheaper sweetener years ago is right there at the top of the list.

In my opinion, high-fructose corn syrup is one of the worst things you can put in your body. Some have called it the “crack cocaine” of all sweeteners. I agree.

HFCS is the most common additive to processed foods. If you read labels on the food you buy, you’ll be amazed. It’s in cereal, lunch meat, soda pop, fruit juice, bread, yogurt, ketchup, mayo. The list goes on and on. According to a recent Princeton University study, Americans consume, on average, about 60 pounds of HFCS every year.

There’s plenty of controversy about HFCS, but in my opinion extensive use of HFCS as a food sweetener is more harmful than using regular sugar. In fact, I believe it to be one of the worst food additives you can ingest. I believe it has a range of dangers, from affecting your appetite to leading to weight gain.

The chemical structure is very similar to sucrose or table sugar. The difference lies in how it is processed and how it affects your body.

This reaction has been highly debatable, but a recent Princeton study on rats opened up a few eyes. While many say HFCS is simply the same thing as sugar, it is not. In the Princeton study, rats fed regular sugar did not get fat. But rats fed the same caloric intake of HFCS got really fat.

Princeton researchers proved there is clearly a difference here and are now continuing research to find out why. The thought is that fructose metabolizes to produce fat while sugar metabolizes to produce energy.

One of my personal sources on the topics is a fellow Duke University Medical School researcher named Anna Mae Diehl, MD. She is the chief of gastroenterology at Duke and a well-known researcher. If you listen to my “Coffee with the Doc” segments on Dave Nemo’s show on Sirius XM channel 106, you may have heard her as she was my special guest.

Dr. Diehl and I agree on HFCS and the dangers to your health. What happens when HFCS gets into your system? For one thing, your body does not recognize HFCS as a sugar. So your pancreas does not react with a burst of insulin as it would with sugar or sucrose and put some of it to work.

While studies are showing HFCS to contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other conditions, I personally have an interest in the effect it has on your liver. The HFCS goes to the liver and starts the process that can lead to non-alcoholic fatty disease. That in turn can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and, in some cases, can lead to cancer of the liver. Liver failure results in you being on the list for a liver transplant.

It is estimated that 30 percent of all adults in the U.S. have some degree of this non-alcoholic fatty liver condition. Why is that? A number of studies have revealed that consuming servings of high-fructose corn syrup is a huge culprit. I suspect that the percentage of truckers is even higher. I have many trucker patients with NAFLD, and I know that truckers are hard-pressed while they are on the road to find any quick food that doesn’t have a dose of HFCS.

In conclusion, as your truckin’ doc, I am advising you to read those labels and stay away from food laced with high-fructose corn syrup. Try to stick with food that is not processed.

And this advice is not just for you truckers, but for your whole family and especially your kids. LL

John McElligott is an MD and Fellow of the American College of Physicians.

March/April
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