Is Sugar the Next Tobacco? It will be if Robert Lustig has anything to say about it.
Among the least likely viral megahits on YouTube is a 90-minute lecture by the food scold and pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig, entitled “Sugar: The Bitter Truth.” He delivers it in a windowless room at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. The talk is simultaneously boring and powerful, combining the gravitas of a national health crisis, the thrill of conspiracy theory, and the tedium of PowerPoint slides. Midway through the talk he scans the hall for approval. “Am I debunking?”
The UCSF extension students mutter “yeah”—most of them, at least. Lustig has a way of seeking validation and pissing off people at the same time. His combined love of showmanship and need for approval led to acting in 12 musical-theater performances during his three years as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His greatest role yet may be as the loudest, most contrarian voice in the public-health debate over why we get fat and what we should do about it.
Lustig is an imperfect frontman for abstemious eating. At age 55, his face is puffy. He looks disheveled even in a coat and tie. People love him and people love to hate him, especially after he proposed in the journal Nature that sugar should be regulated like alcohol and that people who buy soda should be carded. Almost three million people have watched “Sugar: The Bitter Truth.” Alec Baldwin publicly lost 30 pounds by following Lustig’s rules and giving up toxic foods, even trying to avoid the sugar in a dish his mother calls “Love Pie.” Still, a leading endocrinologist, who asked to go unnamed, called Lustig an “idiot.”