I came across the work of a Dr Scott Olson the other day, who is interested in sugar addiction. He has a website devoted to putting the case against sugar. The website is very big and full of information but I have to confess that it wasn’t laid out in a way that made sense to me and was certainly not one that had a lot of science on it – not that there is any particular reason that there should be. Luckiily Dr Olson has written a very good and concise summary of his ideas in a guest post on somebody else’s blog.
There isn’t much doubt that eating a lot of sugar is a bad thing, and many of Dr Olson’s proposals aren’t controversial. I am not sure if sugar is in fact addictive, not at least in the sense that heroin is addictive but it is certainly something that is both hard to resist when it is offered and hard avoid on a day to day basis. Calling it an addiction is a reasonable short hand for a habit that is harmful and hard to shake off. One thing that may not be apparent is that from the body’s point of view carbohydrates like bread and rice are pretty much sources of sugar as well. They are rapidly broken down to sugar in the body – try chewing a bit of white bread for a while without swallowing it and noticing how sweet it becomes after a while.
Dr Olson is on a crusade to get us all to reduce the amount of sugar we eat. Purely on grounds of reducing obesity and diabetes this has to be a good thing.
But I was intrigued by a further claim that he makes, that a high sugar diet can make your skin look older. To quote directly – “Sugar combines with proteins in our bodies to produce advanced glycation end products (or AGEs for short). This sugar/protein combination spells trouble throughout our bodies, but when the aptly named AGEs hit the collagen and elastin in the skin, the result is older looking skin. Damaged collagen also becomes a magnet for the fatty deposits we know as cellulite.” There is plenty of stuff on the internet, particularly health related stuff, that is simply mumbo jumbo,. This however seemed initially plausible. Protein does react with sugar – it is called the Maillard reaction. This reaction does take place in the body and AGEs are produced.
The bit I wasn’t so sure about was the idea that this affected collagen and elastin. Collagen and elastin are the skin’s main scaffolding. Both are continually being created and destroyed by the body. If AGEs are indeed implicated in disrupting collagen and elastin, and if the production of AGEs is indeed the result of eating a lot of sugar, then that is definitely something I want to know about. I have had a search through the literature and have so far only found slim pickings. There are a couple of papers suggesting AGEs might affect collagen in cartilage. If they can affect collagen in cartilage then there is no chemical reason that they shouldn’t also affect collagen in the skin. But that is a long way from actual evidence that they do have this effect.
As I thought about it I realised that the only evidence that would really be convincing would be a trial in humans or a similar animal comparing a high sugar and a low sugar diet over a period of time and looking at the specific affect on the skin. This would be a very difficult expensive trial to carry out and it is not at all obvious who would pay for it. Not sugar manufacturers at any rate. If not that, then maybe there might be indirect evidence. Maybe a zookeeper has noticed what happens to animals skins on different diets some time. But at the moment, I simply can’t find any data one way or the other.
So what do I think? Well I am very grateful to Dr Olson for promoting this idea, and I think his campaign against sugar is a worthwhile one. But I have to say that my gut feeling is that it won’t ever be shown that sugar causes premature wrinkles in the skin. Things like smoking and sun exposure are so significant in skin ageing, that I think that these factors are much more significant. And whatever other problems plump people might have, they don’t seem to have particularly bad skin. I will keep my eyes and ears open for new evidence, but for now I have to conclude than while sugar might make you fat, give you diabetes and damage your teeth there isn’t any really strong reason to believe that it affects your skin.