Our ancestors rarely ate sugar, should you?

In August of this year, National Geographic magazine released a cover story called “Sugar Love, A not so sweet story”. For those of you who don’t have time to read the story, here is the part I find most relevant. According to scientists in the article, early humans in Africa had access to an abundance of sugar in the form of fruit bearing trees. As their geographic range expanded and they inhabited areas to the north, easily accessible sugar became less common. These early humans needed to adapt to relatively small amounts of sugar for survival. Millions of years ago a mutant gene that allowed the body to process small amounts of sugar very efficiently eventually became the dominant gene as those lacking the gene were less likely to survive. According to the article it wasn’t until 10000 years ago that sugarcane was domesticated in New Guinea. Sugarcane reached mainland Asia around 3000 years ago, and they began processing it in India around 1500 years ago. 500 years ago the Europeans became heavily involved as they established plantations in the Caribbean Islands and South America. It was only 400 years ago that sugar became affordable for the middle class. Imagine that, after millions of years of adapting to low sugar diets, we have suddenly been flooded with heavy volumes of sugar. Today the average American consumes 77 pounds of added sugar annually and appears to be suffering as a result. Some scientists are now going so far as to say that they consider excessive sugar to be toxic.

sugar_ngm

I hesitate to make bold statements based on a single scientific study because scientific consensus is constantly changing. For example look at the low fat / no fat diet phase that our country has gone through during the past fifty years. Despite years of being taught this way of eating, and hundreds of products and cookbooks on the market, we are bigger and sicker than ever. In fact, the article states that had we launched a war on sugar instead of a war on fat fifty years ago we might have much better health today. In my opinion the low fat phase was misguided, and in direct opposition to Ayurvedic practices which encourage the generous use of high quality healthy fats in certain individuals. This phase also conflicts with the increasingly popular Paleolithic diet which encourages the same. Let’s not get too sidetracked here talking about fat. My point is that while it can be tempting to get excited about the latest scientific study about human health, it would be wise to wait until multiple studies achieve the same results, and to look at the way our ancestors lived to put things in perspective. In this case, we should expect to see many new studies on the impacts of sugar in the coming years, and so far the existing studies appear to be aligned with the history of sugar in our diet. In other words, the studies are showing that large amounts of sugar are bad for us, and the history is showing that we are not designed to eat large amounts. Compare this to the science coming out of the 1960s that told us that fat was bad for us despite evidence from our ancestors in opposition to that. This is the advantage of using Ayurveda to guide us. It serves as a 5000 year old record of how humans have lived and eaten for optimal health, and helps us sort through an abundance of modern information to determine if we are on the right path.

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