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Freakonomics Duo Duped -- Fructose Water Diet is Dangerous

Posted Dec 18 2008 8:14pm

Today's New York Times Magazine" Freakonomics" article from Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt spotlights a potentially very dangerous, health-destroying "accidental diet" that includes drinking a few spoonfuls of sugar water a day using granulated fructose.

Taking many fructose-water beverage breaks while trying to lose weight is foolhardy, to say the least -- that is, if you want to be healthy and live as long as you can.

In fact, considerable recent research shows that granulated fructose -- which is not made from fruit but rather from corn -- is the most dangerous of all sugars, especially if ingested in large quantities, as I've reported here previously. Please also see this subsequent post.

Unfortunately, Dubner and Levitt -- two talented, imaginative, prolific authors, who've penned the fascinating Freakonomics: A Rogue-Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything -- have been duped in a monstrous way into promoting an unscientific diet -- from an unqualified psychology professor, no less -- that could cause considerable harm.

Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt: Freakonomics The last thing I want to do is disparage Dubner and Levitt. In fact, I have considerable respect for the duo, whose Freakonomics has been the #1 bestselling business book on the Wall Street Journal list for 20 consecutive weeks and is #3 today on the theNew York Times list.

Rather, I want to give New York Times readers and other folks the real scoop about Roberts's foolhardy, fructose-laden diet.

Basically, obese University of California at Berkeley psychology professor Seth Roberts, Ph.D, 52, reportedly used his own body as a science laboratory for 12 years, all the while diligently recording data along the way.

Finally, after much self-experimentation, Roberts -- who embraced the theory that our bodies are regulated by a "set point" -- allegedly "discovered two agents capable of tricking the set-point system," Dubner and Levitt explain in their article.

In order to peel off the pounds, Roberts ultimately devised a dubious regime -- he started drinking several ounces of sugar water using granulated fructose (instead of table sugar) and consuming a few tablespoonfuls of unflavored canola or extra light olive oil, doing both a few times a day.

He attributes these fructose and oil concoctions as helping him to lose 40 pounds and keep it off.

"He could eat pretty much whenever and whatever he wanted, but he was far less hungry than he had ever been," the Freakonomics duo note.

Roberts calls his weight-loss program the "Shangri-La Diet" and even enlisted friends and colleages to follow his perverted plan, and they usually had "similar results."

While I heartily applaud the idea of dispassionately studying yourself to help you lose weight and kick habits -- in fact, I advise members of my online KickSugar group to "watch yourself like a lab rat" -- this self-experimentation has to be tempered with informed nutritional choices. And this is where Roberts's theories fail miserably.

To be blunt, Roberts -- whose professed research interests include mood, weight and sleep -- is completely clueless about the damning science research on fructose (and also canola oil).

Nationally known nutritionist and weight loss expert Jonny Bowden, who I was able to reach today at home, puts it succinctly. 

"Fructose is the most damaging of sugars. It raises triglycerides and creates insulin resistance using a different pathway than normal," he told me.

"Sure, fructose has a low-glycemic index, but every nutritionist worth his salt has learned that its glycemic index is irrelevant to the extensive damage that it causes," Bowden, who is the iVillage.com "Weight Loss Coach" and author of Living the Low Carb Life: Choosing the Diet that's Right for You, from Atkins to the Zone.

Jonny Bowden: Living the Low Carb Life

Moreover, Bowden cautions that looking at weight loss as a measure of a person's health is deceptive and misleading.

"There's absolutely nothing in this regimen that anyone in the field of nutrition would consider a scientific theory.

"This is like models saying you can lose weight by having cocaine and aspirin in the morning or that if you ate food shaped like a heart, you'd have the heart of a lion," continues Bowden, who punched holes in every one of Roberts' theories, including the one about the role of sweetness and appetite.

"The idea of sweetness not being a flavor to trigger appetite is pretty much contradicted by all the research....

"Every person who has ever tried to lose weight -- not no mention every clinician in the world -- know that sweetness triggers the desire for more food," he says. "After all, ever try to eat just one chocolate chip cookie?"

(Read the post Bowden put on his blog today, too, after talking with me. And see the link he provided to another fructose study.)

Russ Bianchi, CEO and managing director of the renowned global health formulation and product development firm Adept Solutions, Inc., dubs Roberts's regime "the Bataan Death March Diet," referring to an infamous incident in 1942 during World War II.

"Crystalline fructose is no different from high fructose corn syrup in its metabolization and is NOT natural and NOT fruit sugar," explains Bianchi, referring to numerous studies fingering large consumption of HFCS as highly dangerous.

"I bet BIG MONEY that if you took a triglyceride and LDL cholesterol count on this guy, it's higher than normal safety ranges. He's doing considerable damage to his system." 

Rather, Bianchi recommends that people trying to lose weight eat a calorie-reduced diet that includes dark green leafy vegetables, fresh fruit, healthy oils such as olive oil, fish, poultry, eggs, and limited whole grains, as well as exercising, not smoking, limiting or restricting alcohol, and eating no processed junk food and drinks, particularly those containing fructose or high fructose corn syrup.

Please, Dr. Roberts, I implore you, stop your fructose-drinking habit! If you're so big on self-experimentation, look into some legitimate studies about fructose and then reassess what you're doing to your body and what you're urging others to do. You might be slim now, but your fructose habit ultimately could lead to the reverse unwanted effect.

For your safety and well being, I urge you to confer with a fellow staffer at another University of California campus. Talk to Peter J. Havel, Ph.D., a nutrition and endocrinology researcher at UC Davis, who has done considerable research on fructose.

Dr. Havel, whom I interviewed a while back for my upcoming book, SUGAR SHOCK!, was the principal researcher for a study published last year in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, which suggests that there's a hormonal mechanism by which consuming a diet high in chemically produced fructose could lead people to increase their caloric intake and gain weight.

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