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Robert Lustig ’77

Dishing the bitter truth about sugar
February 21, 2012

MIT prepared Robert Lustig to wear many different hats: clinician, researcher, policy wonk, and author. But it’s surprising what he feels might have prepared him most.

“Musical-theater guild,” he says. “I’m always complimented on my ability to engage an audience. The plays I participated in got me ready for what I’m doing today.”

A professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), Lustig has focused his research on obesity issues in adult and pediatric populations. He is particularly interested in neuroendocrinology, which emphasizes the central nervous system’s regulation of energy balance.

“Obesity is an enormous problem. My job is to bring science to the policy,” he says. “We need to attack it with effective policy in preventative health.”

His initial interest in obesity was piqued during 20.30, Nutritional Biochemistry, taught by Sanford A. Miller, who later became head of the FDA. “Miller asked us, ‘Why do people eat?’” Lustig says. “Everyone laughed, except me. That question became ingrained in me and stimulated me to investigate this epidemic.”

Lustig’s real investigation began at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in the mid-1990s. Working in pediatric endocrinology, which examines hormones’ effect on the brain, he was alarmed at the number of young patients who became obese following radiation treatment for cancer. Lustig theorized that hypothalamic damage from the treatment interfered with the ability to sense the hormone leptin, which led to increased activity of the vagus nerve and, in turn, increased insulin secretion.

“We realized that obesity was not a behavior,” he says. “These patients couldn’t transduce signals from fat via leptin, which tells your body to burn energy and stop storing it.”

Lustig expanded his research to people who became obese under other circumstances, encountering similar insulin secretion activity and identifying a singular, leptin-blocking culprit: sugar, particularly insulin’s response to it in the bloodstream. A video by Lustig, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” is a hit on YouTube, with over 1.8 million views.

“Sugar is addictive and toxic, irrespective of calories,” he says. “As it’s gotten cheaper, intake has gone up. We want to prove that taking sugar out of the diet will resolve obesity.”

Lustig received his medical degree from Cornell University Medical College and did his pediatric residency at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, his clinical fellowship at UCSF, and his postdoctoral fellowship at Rockefeller University in New York.

A former chair of the Obesity Task Force of the Pediatric Endocrine Society, he has published more than 90 research articles and 50 chapters and is currently working on Fat Chance: Gambling on Our Personal and Public Health, a book set to be released in 2013. He has been married to his wife, Julie, for 16 years, and has two daughters, Miriam and Meredith.