It was over a business meal in a fancy Buffalo, New York, restaurant that the hottest new weight-loss and insulin-control program was born.
The program is called Sugar Busters! (For reading ease, we're dispensing with the "!" for the remainder of this article.) More then 300,000 copies of Sugar Busters: Cut Sugar to Trim Fat have been printed and shipped since Ballantine published the book in May. That's enough to drive the book to the top of bestseller lists from New York to Los Angeles.
‘I am on my diet.’
One of the diners in that Buffalo restaurant that fateful night six years ago was H. Leighton Steward, who at that time was CEO of New Orleans-based Louisiana Land and Exploration Company, a Fortune 1,000 company that was the largest owner of coastal wetlands in the country. Steward is now vice chair of Burlington Resources, which recently merged with LL&E. A geologist by training, he was carrying 220 pounds on a 6'4" frame and concerned about his weight. His dinner partner that night was Victor Rice, who then chaired Verity Corporation and is now chair and CEO of LucasVarity PLC. Steward knew that Rice had lost 52 pounds.
"I watched what he ate that night," Steward recalls. "We had a big bunch of hors d'oeuvre and sautéed mushrooms and vegetables and stuff, and then we ate a big spinach salad with bacon chips all over it." There were several lamb chops on Rice's plate, and he had just ordered a second bottle of red wine.
"Victor, it was sure nice of you to get off your diet tonight so we could have this nice meal," Steward told the other businessman.
"Leighton, I am on my diet," was his response.
Steward was stunned. Rice's wife had found a French book in Europe by someone named Michel Montignac. "I had to get the English edition of the book, Dine Out and Lose Weight, out of our London office, because I looked for it for months here," Steward recalls.
Following Montignac's book, Steward lost 20 pounds by eating steak, lamb chops, cheese, and eggs. But although his wife recognized that he was looking good, she was worried because he always had high cholesterol. She insisted that he see a doctor.
The doctor was Morrison Bethea, a cardiothoracic surgeon in New Orleans. Steward didn't have a cardiovascular problem, but Bethea was friend and sometime golfing partner.
Both doctor and patient were surprised that Steward's total cholesterol had dropped 21 percent while his HDL or good cholesterol stayed the same. "Gosh, Leighton, you're on to something," was Bethea's response.
But they still didn't know why the diet worked. Montignac had never figured it out either.
"I cycled on this for 10 days," Steward says now. "How I could eat eggs and this stuff and watch my cholesterol drop like a rock was about to drive me crazy. When I figured out why it lowered my cholesterol, Mo confirmed it for me in about 3 seconds. He had just never thought about it."
"Look, I am on a low-sugar diet," Steward told Bethea. "I have a lower average level of sugar in my body all day, so I don't need as much insulin. It must be insulin stimulating my liver to make cholesterol."
Bethea told him he was right. "I can tell you why. When we get diabetics in the hospital and they can no longer control the diabetes with exercise or pills or diet, we have to start giving them insulin injections. When we give them that first injection, the major side effect will be that their cholesterol will go through the roof. Let me go talk to the guys."
The first guy they talked to was Dr. Sam Andrews, an endocrinologist. He said that all of his insulin-dependent patients did have elevated cholesterol. Because of the cholesterol connection they brought in a liver expert, Dr. Luis Balart, who practices gasteroenterology and hepatology.
After talking about it for years, they decided they had to write the book. The problem was time: one of them is a high-powered executive and the other three are busy doctors.
So did they have it ghost written? "No ghost writer," Dr. Bethea replies. "You are looking at the writers. All four of us divided up the chapters. I made an outline and assigned chapters. We all four wrote different chapters, and then Leighton Steward and I rewrote everything so it would look as if it was written by one person and not four."
The book just published by Ballantine is in fact a revised and much enlarged edition of a book they self-published in 1995. That edition sold more than 210,000 copies, a phenomenal number for a self-published book. That was with a zero marketing budget, Dr. Bethea says.
"We knew it would do okay, because our concept is sound," he continues. "If anybody looks into the scientific validity of it, they will see that. And secondly, it works. And any time you are promoting a product that you have done simply and understandably and it works, it's going to be a success."
Steward and all three doctors live in New Orleans, and that city, "the Big Easy," is where Sugar Busters originally took hold before spreading around the country. Maybe that's because the personal spread in New Orleans has reached critical mass. "Being the most obese city in the country, people here are trying to do something," Dr. Andrews says.
The Sugar Busters diet is nothing if not simple. It restricts very few foods: potatoes, corn, white rice, bread from refined flour, beets, carrots, plus sugar in most of its forms. Moderate amounts of fructose and lactose are fine.
Counting calories or weighing or measuring is not a part of the Sugar Busters plan. "We want you to look at portion size," says Dr. Bethea. "We are giving you a nice way to figure this out. Do you know what a dinner plate looks like? It's got a flat bottom and flared sides. Your meat and two or three vegetables ought to fit neatly on the bottom of the plate. It shouldn't be stacked. It shouldn't be up on the sides."
Dr. Bethea says they have been very pleased with the response of people with diabetes. Still, "we caution anyone who is diabetic who goes on Sugar Busters to consult with a physician. If you are taking insulin, you need to let the physician know so it can be adjusted. If you are on an oral hypoglycemic agent, you may not need it any longer. We are not saying to go out and treat yourself. This needs to be done in concert with your physician."
Sugar Busters is not a low-carbohydrate or high-fat diet. The diet is about 40 percent carbohydrate and 30 percent or less fat, of which no more than 10 percent should be saturated fat.
"You might be eating more protein than normal," Dr. Balart says. "We are not saying no carbohydrates. We are saying choose the correct carbohydrates."
"Because of the grain, Sugar Busters is also a high-fiber diet," Dr. Andrews adds. "We encourage people to eat whole grain, and whole grain is really high fiber. By increasing fiber you do several things. You decrease the glycemic index, you promote good intestinal function, the fiber itself can help lower your triglycerides, cholesterol, and blood sugar, maybe even contribute to some weight loss."
Sugar Busters is, of course, a low-sugar diet. "If you eliminate sugar from your diet, you do lose your taste for sugar," Dr. Andrews maintains. "It takes a week or so. Once you do that you don't have to rush to the cookie jar after you eat supper."
The response to the Sugar Busters diet from dietitians has been muted. Cinda Chima, a registered dietitian and director of clinical nutrition at MetroHealth System in Cleveland, says there were some fine things in the book.
"Focusing on higher fiber whole grain products is an excellent idea," she says. "Most people would benefit from it." Nonetheless, she doubts if it is especially important in blood sugar control in amounts normal consumed.
"I also don't know how practical the glycemic index is," Chima says. "The response to foods in the context of a mixed meal is blunted or is less important."
"I am still convinced that it is a matter of calories in and calories out," she concludes.
The lukewarm reception by dietitians in general doesn't surprise Dr. Andrews. "They are saying that potatoes and sucrose have about the same glycemic index so you can eat both of them. Their thinking is really strange."
Sidebar: Busting the Sugar
Remove the sugar from your diet, say the authors of Sugar Busters, the hot new weight-loss and insulin-control book. Sounds easy. We all know that table sugar is those white crystals we sprinkle on our cereals and sometimes in our coffee.
The book names refined sugar, corn syrup, molasses, honey, and sugared colas as sugars to be avoided. All of these will quickly raise your blood glucose level.
But there is probably no ingredient that is more ubiquitous or goes by so many names than sugar. What we call sugar—whether white, granulated, or table—is one type of sugar called sucrose and is only the tip of the crystal.
Maltose, more commonly called malt sugar, works the quickest. Glucose, the primary sugar in corn syrup, is not far behind. And dextrose is the same as glucose, says Dr. Sam Andrews, one of the authors. So too is maltodextrin.
Sucrose, processed from sugar cane or sugar beets, has the next quickest effect. It includes brown sugar, turbinado sugar, and the sugar in molasses. There are actually more than 100 different sucrose substances.
Two types of sugar have a less dramatic effect on blood sugar levels and are acceptable in moderation. Lactose is the sugar in milk products, and fructose is found in fruits. However, crystalline fructose and high-fructose corn syrup have a much greater effect on blood glucose levels than does fructose alone.
The so-called sugar alcohols, which include maltitol, sorbitol, and mannitol, are absorbed much slower and are also acceptable in moderation, Dr. Andrews says.
Sidebar: Spin-offs from Sugar BustersSugar Busters is by now much more than just a book. Already it includes a Web site and three cookbooks patterned after its diet. Coming are an official cookbook, product licensing, and more.
The Sugar Busters Web page address is http://www.sugarbusters.com/. It includes interviews with two of the authors. Max and Margaret Maxwell of New Media Arts manage the Web site.
Deanie Comeaux Bahan wrote the most successful cookbook based on Sugar Busters. She says that she has already sold more than 25,000 copies of her Sugarfree New Orleans: A Cookbook Based on the Glycemic Index. Available for $15.95 plus postage and handling from AFM Publishing at (888) 607-4002, this book has 171 pages of recipes based on her experience.
"I was skeptical about any diet that would allow me to eat steak, cheese, nuts, and ice cream," Deanie says. "But it was obvious that others were losing weight on the diet."
She says that she had been sugar busting for about a month and had lost 10 pounds, when her husband Mark, who has diabetes, was hospitalized for congestive heart failure. While sitting at his bedside, she decided that this was the one diet that he might be able to follow and had a serious talk with him.
"Holding out her left hand she said, "Here are your life, the children, and I." Holding out her right hand she said, "Here are the soft drinks, the white bread, the sugar. You are going to have to decide which are the more important to you."
Mark said okay to Sugar Busters. Just four weeks later his blood glucose had dropped from more than 500 to 98. His cholesterol went from more than 400 to 144, and his triglycerides from more than 700 to 72. And he went from using five Micronase tablets a day to one.
Meanwhile, she knew that Mark was going to become bored with the meals she was cooking. Not finding much in the way of recipes, Deanie began compiling her own collection of Sugar Busters-compliant recipes, and before she knew it, the book was born.
Due out soon is her second book, Sugarfree: Quick and Easy, and a mail-order food catalog of acceptable products. Both are available from AFM Publishing.
Janet Duhe has another cookbook that builds on Sugar Busters, The Best of Both World: Southern Recipes for Healthier Eating. Self-published by her at P.O. Box 2023, Reserve, LA 70084, the booklet sells for $17.75.
Mike Lewis authored "Sinless Sweets: Desserts for Low-carbohydrate Dieters." Self-published for $10, the booklet is available from him at P.O. Box 92555, Lafayette, LA 70509.
Lewis is also developing an Internet newsgroup to promote Sugar Busters. "We will name it something like something like alt.diet.sugar-free or alt.diet.sugarbust," he says.
Also in the works are licensing of bread and other Sugar Busters products. "We are talking to people right now," says H. Leighton Steward, one of the authors. "We are having to do it defensively to protect our trademark and because there are so many copy-cats out there. There are some atrocious violations out there with what some people are calling Sugar Busters."
An edited version of this article appeared in Diabetes Interview, September 1998.
For the article I interviewed each of the four authors of the book. Verbatim transcripts of the interviews are on-line at the Sugarbusters Web site:
Interview with Luis A. Balart, M.D.:
Interview with Sam S. Andrews, M.D.:
Interview with Morrison C. Bethea, M.D.:
Interview with H. Leighton Steward:
I regret that I cannot answer questions about Sugar Busters! Because of this article and my interviews with the authors, hundreds of people have asked me for my views. But I am a journalist and cannot speak for the authors of that book.
There are other resources. The Sweet Sense forum and Web site is a big help. The URL is
See also the Sugar Busters Forum (Sugar Busters Discussion Board) at
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