Advocating for health: The case of sugar and heart disease

By Phil Colmenares, MD
Wednesday, December 13, 2017
sugar cubes


For decades, big tobacco effectively used money and influence to hide from the American public the dangers of smoking. It now appears that the sugar industry engaged in similar tactics by obscuring the effects of high sugar diets on heart disease.

The story of sugar, like that of tobacco, is about industry-funded public relations manipulating medical opinion and public policy to fit industry needs. At some point, advocating for health took a back seat to protecting the sugar industry.

In the early 1960s, studies revealed competing theories about the potential role of diet on heart disease. Some studies suggested that high sugar diets contributed to heart disease, while others focused on high fat diets.

As reported in The New York Times, newly uncovered documents show that in 1968 executives in the sugar industry led an effort that effectively focused medical attention and public policy on reducing saturated fats, not sugar, as protection against heart disease.

Current research suggests otherwise: A 2008 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found “no probable or convincing evidence” that a high level of dietary fat causes heart disease or cancer.  In 2010, a landmark review by the American Society for Nutrition stated “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD [coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease]”.

While we've been focusing on saturated fats, we've seen a growing epidemic of diabetes in our country. Researchers have found that sugar intake clearly influences diabetes risk independent of other risk factors. The Washington State Department of Health reports that in Washington State alone, 1 in 7 adults aged 20 or older has diabetes, and another 1 in 3 have prediabetes. Diabetes is associated with a whole host of health problems, including heart disease. Roughly 19% of hospitalizations for people with diabetes listed heart disease as the main diagnosis.  

Advocating for health requires a willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads. It also requires resisting the influence of moneyed interests, and the public relations efforts they use to distort the impact of their products on health.

Our goal at Premera is to be passionate advocates for our customers. We do this by working to give our customers the tools and resources they need to make the right choices for themselves and their families.

For example, our Wellness program connects customers who are looking to make better food choices to of dieticians and behavioral health specialists.  This support team can help them improve their diets, follow an exercise program, manage stress and even help them get more sleep.

This coaching relationship made a world of difference for Angela (name was changed to protect her privacy) whose high stress job and emotional eating resulted in obesity, difficulty sleeping, and low energy levels. Through regular coaching sessions, Angela identified her challenges, set personal fitness goals, and requested and received dietary recommendations.

Five months after her first phone call, Angela lost 32 pounds, dropped 100 points in her cholesterol, no longer needs to prop up her mattress to sleep, and is implementing new strategies to meet her new 2018 fitness goals. Her doctor even told her she was “one of a kind.” “It really jump started me that you called me when you did. That was a huge help and I appreciated it.” Angela said.
For more information on the impact of sugar on your health or how you can make small changes with big results, visit our Healthsource blog on the Premera website. Or call us. We can help. Additional resources can be found at the Mayo Clinic.

Phil Colmenares, MD is a Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer at Premera.



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