Recently, I read and reviewed David Gillespie’s “Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat”. Part memoir, part literature review, it charted Gillespie’s adventure into the murky world of human nutrition and biochemistry, and his eventual transition into a “fructose-free” lifestyle (which resulted in a 40kg weight loss). I concluded:
I learnt a lot from the book, and really appreciate the work that Gillespie has done to educate the public, but I think his ideas and recommendations haven’t gone far enough, and should be treated as a transitional foundation, rather than a realistic long-term template for all-round health.
Shortly afterwards, I got stuck into reading his follow-up book: “The Sweet Poison Quit Plan: How To Kick The Sugar Habit and Lose Weight”. After the publication of his initial work, Gillespie was inundated with public interest, which no doubt led to the development of his Quit Plan. I hope I don’t sound nasty or overly critical when I say this, but the commercial interests that underlie such a project… well, they really shine through.
Gillespie begins by reiterating much of the content of his original “Sweet Poison”, in a more condensed fashion, updating it with a few of the more recent findings. In fact, I rather appreciated how quickly Gillespie set about introducing his “plan”; after only a chapter or so outlining the dangers of sugar, he plunged straight into his “five step process”. So that was good.
Unfortunately, Gillespie started to lose me a little when he introduced his conceptualisation of “sugar addiction”, and gave a basic overview of what he understands “addiction” to entail. Having studied addiction from several perspectives in the course of my psychology degree, I found his explanations and descriptions a little off-base and confused, not to mention woefully incomplete. That said, I understand that this book was not written for psychology graduates – it was written for the “layperson” looking to improve their health and maybe shed a few kilos, so perhaps I can forgive Gillespie on this one.
Gillespie’s approach, or “plan” if you prefer, for quitting sugar (by which he means essentially quitting artificial sources of fructose) entails:
- Having the right attitude (i.e., not viewing the endeavour as deprivation)
- Identifying and overcoming habitual sugar consumption (by which, my inner-psychology-nerd compels me to explain, he means identifying environmental triggers for your habitual sugar consumption, and pairing them with alternative stimuli or eliminating them altogether)
- Ridding your house, car, garage, workplace, etc., of sugar, as far as is practical (obviously, shared workspaces or unsupportive families can cause problems here)
- Experiencing the physical and psychological ramifications of eliminating sugar (i.e., “withdrawal”)
- Stocking up on alternatives, or foods with “acceptable” amounts of fructose
I suppose, in a lot of ways, the process itself isn’t all that bad – I’m trying to be fair, here. Gillespie does acknowledge that different processes will work better for different people; so, some might deal better with a complete “cold turkey” withdrawal from fructose, while others may require a more “gently, gently” toe-in-the-water approach. He personally found “cold turkey” to be more effective, so this is what he most strongly advocates.
Gillespie also does quite a fine job of describing the fructose contents of a wide variety of foods, and putting these numbers and proportions into context and making them tangible. As with the original “Sweet Poison”, the fact that he is Australian is a huge help here; I find myself constantly frustrated with American authors who consider only the American context, and don’t make room for the cultural differences for readers in other areas. Gillespie provides analysis of commonly-encountered Australian foods – meat pies, sausage rolls, condiments, etc. – that would not necessarily crop up in American texts. So, that’s excellent.
I would also give one final, half-hearted thumbs up (well, really, more of a thumbs sideways) to Gillespie for clarifying his position on artificial sweeteners. From my read of “Sweet Poison”, it seemed that Gillespie felt the quote-unquote potential risks of artificial sweeteners were outweighed by the definite risks of fructose, so one could feel free to down all the aspartame or saccharin he or she desired. The Sweet Poison Quit Plan, however, provides a much more thorough explanation and prescription. Gillespie provides a list of artificial sweeteners he considers “safe”, a list he considers definitively “unsafe”, and a list on which you have to make your own call. He states that he only advocates the use of artificial sweeteners during the quote-unquote “detox” phase, and that they should not form a part of your diet beyond that point. I guess that’s better than saying “Nah, they can’t be that bad, go right ahead mate!”, but I still wouldn’t want to be using artificial sweeteners, whether Gillespie says they’re safe or not. I think it’s completely justified to argue that one may “need” them as a crutch of sorts (as Gillespie did, switching from “full strength” soft drink to diet, during his own detox), or at the very least it will help them overcome the physical addiction to fructose, but I don’t agree that this is the healthiest way to go, nor do I think we should imply that this approach is entirely “safe”.
Gillespie does cover himself many times, pointing out that we can’t actually “know” for sure that artificial sweeteners are a-OK, because they are too new and the research doesn’t yet exist, but he usually follows those statements up with a “but it’s probably alright and I did it and I’m still here so it can’t be that bad” justification. So, Gillespie gets points for clarifying that it shouldn’t be open slather with artificial sweeteners, but loses points with me for recommending them at all.
And, ultimately, as with Sweet Poison, I think Gillespie kind of misses the boat. He makes it to the wharf and he has his ticket, but it pulls away before he can jump on. Yes, fructose is dangerous and not good for our health. Yes, we should be minimising (if not completely eliminating) artificial sources of fructose in our diet. But fructose is not the only dietary danger we face. It is not the root of every health problem. I was flabbergasted at his recommendations for “sugar-free meals” – it’s possibly the only way a $3 meat pie could be considered “healthy”. He constantly and consistently advocates using dextrose (i.e., glucose) in place of regular table sugar – indeed, not a single recipe featured in the Quit Plan doesn’t include dextrose. Somehow, he manages to point out that glucose (i.e., dextrose) will lead to a sudden and sharp spike in blood glucose, and it shouldn’t be consumed while one is still in the throes of self-diagnosed sugar addiction, but simultaneously argue that glucose/dextrose is a safe and natural sugar to use, and can be consumed with abandon. Huh???
In a lot of ways, I found Gillespie’s recommendations a bit confused, and his writing style a bit back-and-forth-y. At times, his thinking was difficult to follow. This wasn’t really a problem in the original Sweet Poison, even though a lot of the concepts up for discussion were far more complicated.
Look, I don’t mean to sound preachy or nit-picky; as I’ve tried to express, I do think Gillespie made some good point. He’s encouraging us to read our ingredients lists, check our nutrition panels, drawing our attention to fructose that we may be completely unaware we are consuming. I certainly wouldn’t fault anyone who starts with Gillespie’s recommendations in an attempt to improve their health. However, I believe – and this is just me, folks – that Gillespie’s recommendations aren’t going to do enough. I think he’s essentially dead wrong about carbohydrates (insisting over and over that we “require” glucose to function – by which me means we must consume glucose to function, which flies in the face of just about everything I understand about macronutrients, ketosis, and gluconeogenesis). I think that recommending people eat bread with Vegemite every morning – as long as they wash it down with milk instead of juice – isn’t very responsible, when you imply that you’re selling them perfect health. I don’t think we should consider fructose to be the only enemy we are up against. Yes, it’s a pretty ugly bully, but it comes with friends.
Ultimately, this book reads very differently to Sweet Poison. Gillespie doesn’t want to get the suburban Average Joes and Josephines offside. Morning TV shows don’t want to interview radical hippies that are saying “Everything you have been told about diet is WRONG! Grains and sugars are BAD! BURN THEM ALL!”. So, focusing solely on fructose and giving your readers carte blanche on everything else is a nice little middle ground; you get a bad guy that’s big enough to draw attention, but the changes you propose aren’t so radical that they freak everyone out. Win win, right? Sure, unless you’re following the recommendations to the letter and expecting perfect health to follow.
Furthermore, with the confused nature of his writing, I would guess Gillespie has tried to solidify and explain his own approach to “quitting sugar”, condensing it and describing it in such a way that others can follow (it has to be firm enough to have “rules”, but loose enough that it can be adapted to the readers’ preferences). Seeing as his desire to quit sugar evolved organically from what he had learned, rather than being a hard-and-fast step-by-step process, it’s kinda hard to regurgitate that and package it up to sell.
In sum, Sweet Poison was a great read. The Sweet Poison Quit Plan was a disappointing sequel; it still had some of the stars as the original, but it just wasn’t as good and left me with a bad taste in my mouth. However, I’m expecting a lot more from his third book – Big Fat Lies – which focuses on food politics, why saturated fat has been demonised, and how the “diet industry” is bullshit. That is much more up my alley than simply “replace fructose with dextrose and you’ll be a picture of health”. I’ll be sure to post my thoughts on that soon.
Have you read Sweet Poison or the Quit Plan follow-up? What do you think? Do you think my criticisms are fair? Has giving up fructose worked for you?