Book review: Sweet Poison, Why Sugar Makes Us Fat by David Gillespie

sweet poison

Sweet Poison, Why Sugar Makes Us Fat by David Gillespie
Publisher: Penguin Books (September 2008)
Genre: Non-fiction, Health
Pages: 208

David Gillespie has written quite a controversial book. In Sweet Poison he claims that sugar is not just a little bad for you, but as bad as poison. A poison that is not recognized as such at the moment and with which millions of people infuse themselves every single day. Day in, day out… 

I’m a bit skeptical when people say that sugar is bad, our bodies run on glucose, don’t they? The idea of Sweet Poison is, though, that not all sugars, but only fructose is to blame for our first-world problems. As the author argues, fructose is two-fold bad news. Unlike fat and glucose, no natural feedback loop is in place for fructose. The absence of this feedback loop makes our ability to tell when we’ve had enough fail. Furthermore, as fructose is broken down, it increases the level of fatty acids in our blood and is basically directly converted to fat. So, all diet plans can go out the window. Instead of avoiding too much (saturated) fat, we should avoid sugar. Fructose is the new fat, apparently.

It has to be said that Gillespie has a tendency to write dramatic books. With titles as Big Fat Lies and Free Schools you can sense his general attraction to controversy. But the award for most dramatic title definitely goes to Toxic Oil: Why Vegetable Oil Will Kill You And How To Save Yourself. As for Gillespie’s background: he is not an academic expert in the field of nutritional science. He is a mere experience expert, having lost over 40 kilos with his revolutionary methods. He is an ex-corporate lawyer and a business man. With that background, he knows how to sell his story. By bringing the information with a humorous undertone, he had my attention for the whole length of the book.

I do think he read up on a lot of the academic research that is normally inaccessible for the general public. The danger is, however, that when looking for specific information, you only find that what suits your hypothesis. The world of food is not black and white, so neither is the research. By claiming that it is, one is either acknowledging just that what fits the hypothesis or demonstrating a poor capability of literature research. So while I think that the book is definitely thought provoking, I have to agree that Gillespie is just telling a story. Sure, for some parts of it there is scientific evidence. That does not mean though that you can take these bits and pieces and glue them together in a scientifically accurate story. Because that’s exactly what you get, a story without a complete foundation of evidence. That also doesn’t mean that what he’s saying is not correct. I would be very interested to see the future research on this topic. I did a quick search already and indeed saw some evidence of detrimental effects of fructose. The research doesn’t cover the whole story yet, however. So in the end future research is necessary to shed light on these matters.


No more cakes? Ever?

Small side note on the accessibility of research, which I consider one of the main areas where academia will have to improve upon in the next couple of year (or sooner, preferably). Normally, research articles are published in academic journals, for which one has to pay to get access. This leads to the fact that only people affiliated with research institutes have access to this information. In my opinion, this is really bad, as scientific knowledge should be accessible to anyone who is interested. Fortunately, I’m not the only one with this opinion. Recently, a number of open access papers have gained ground. As the name already implies, the articles published in such a journal are free to read for anyone. I sincerely hope that these journals will become the norm in the future.

Sweet poison certainly moved a lot of people, as everyone seems to have an opinion about it. But I guess that’s to be expected if you’re claiming that fructose is the cause of obesity and modern illnesses as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. If you then strengthen your claim by proposing that exercising is not an efficient way to lose weight compared to cutting sugar out of your diet, some very influential sectors will disagree. Nutrition Australia and the Nut-Net Nutritionist Network have written an elaborate response. Their main argument against Sweet Poison is that even though there is a relationship between sugar consumption and obesity, this does not necessarily imply causality. They also accuse him of bending the scientific article to his hypotheses, thereby misinterpreting them or leaving vital information out.


One other negative effect of sugar, one that is completely skipped in this book, is the addictive property. Research has shown sugar to be at least as addictive, if not more, than alcohol and some drugs. I recognize that myself too. Do you know the feeling when you eat one piece of chocolate, you need to finish the whole bar? Or that nasty ache in the back of your throat, begging you for some (sugary) snack? I’ve experienced this to be my main reason for eating too unhealthy. And in the periods when I avoided eating sugar, it was all gone.

In the end, Sweet Poison was definitely an interesting read. While the evidence might not be completely watertight (yet), I do agree that consuming the amounts of sugar we currently do, can never be good for us. David Gillespie makes it interesting by telling his own story and what made it hard for him to cut down on sugar and lose weight. He makes it clear that he’s by no means one of those perfect diet gurus. One has to be careful though and not take his advice to the letter. Keep thinking for yourself too. Everything in moderation and do what feels good!

Final rating: ★★★★☆


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