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'The Five "A's" of sugar toxicity' - Dr James Muecke AM, 2020 Australian of the Year

Posted on June 26 2020

The following is the ninth in a series of weekly guest posts from 2020 Australian of the Year, Dr James Muecke AM. 

About Dr Muecke

56-year-old Dr James Muecke AM is passionate about fighting blindness. His focus is the leading cause of blindness in working age adults – type 2 diabetes – a spiralling epidemic that in some regions of Australia is impacting over one-in-ten people. It's also the fastest growing cause of vision loss in Aboriginal people and the sixth-biggest killer in this country. James wants to challenge our perception of sugar and its toxic impact on the development of type 2 diabetes.

James co-founded Sight For All, a social impact organisation aiming to create a world where everyone can see. Sight For All’s comprehensive and sustainable educational strategies are impacting on the lives of over one million people each year. 

With 80% of world blindness avoidable – and almost 90% in low income countries – James treats blindness as a human rights issue.

This is the ninth piece in this series, to read the eighth message click here

The Five "A's" of sugar toxicity

Type 2 diabetes is a dietary disease and a dietary disease needs a dietary cure. Sounds simple right? Unfortunately, not. There are other confounding factors that make this a tougher ask and are related to the toxic impact of sugar. I call them the five “A’s” of sugar toxicity – addiction, alleviation, accessibility, addition, and advertisement.

I suspect that much of the human race is addicted to sugar, although I’m sure not many of us realise. Sugar and other sweet products are highly addictive. In fact, sugar has been proven to be as addictive as the nicotine in cigarettes. Like nicotine, alcohol and drugs, the consumption of sugar activates the reward centre in our brains, resulting in the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This in turn makes us want to do it again, as it feels good. It also gives us cravings. And it’s the good feelings and the cravings that conspire to make sugar a very difficult habit to kick.

Because sugar makes us feel good, it’s often used as solace when we’re down or for the alleviation of stress. It gives us an endogenous dopamine hit which counters the cortisol released during anxious times. The problem is, the more sugar we ingest, the more we need to make us feel good. It’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to break and often drives excessive and sustained consumption of sugar.

These days it seems that our whole world is flooded with cheap and highly accessible sugary food and drinks. You can’t check out from most supermarkets without being enticed by confectionary and soft drinks, often at heavily discounted prices. This is compounded by the astronomical amount of sugar and other sweeteners that are added to our food and drinks – in the US, 75% of all food and drinks have added sugar and I suspect that Australia is not far behind. Our love affair with sugar is also exacerbated by the relentless barrage of advertisements for sweet products that flood our every waking moment, often in a predatory manner, and the lure of fast and convenient foods in our busy lives.

My next four blogs will look at strategies that can deal with the five A’s of sugar toxicity.

It’s easy to nominate now for the 2021 Awards, just complete the online nomination form at

Keen to learn more? Click here to read the next blog piece


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