CU Med School doc fighting back against the sweet life


AURORA | Doctor Richard Johnson admits he’s a “sugar-aholic.” But, he’s recovering.

As a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and chief of the Division of Renal Diseases, Johnson has spent years studying the causes of obesity and diabetes. Too often, though, he would succumb to the saccharine subject of his own research: sugar.

“I find chocolate cake and all those things incredibly delicious,” he said. “I ate whatever I wanted and never gained weight, but as I got into my 40s, I started to gain weight.”

It was only after he authored the book “The Fat Switch,” launched this past summer, that he began to heed his own advice about losing weight.

Now, he’s 25 pounds lighter than he was two months ago because of limiting sugar and carbohydrates and exercising in the mornings.

“It’s amazing how much weight comes off,” he said.

Originally from the Midwest, Johnson graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1979 and went on to work at the University of Washington, Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and the University of Florida. He’s worked at the University of Colorado Hospital since 2008.

His career commenced more than three decades ago with an interest in kidney disease, which led him to research high blood pressure, then uric acid, and eventually fructose.

“It was a chain of serendipitous events that led me from one topic to another,” he said. “The principle I always followed was, ‘Follow where the excitement goes.’”

Now, what enlivens him is discovering the causes of obesity, which affects a third of all Americans and is a contributing factor in heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and kidney disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

His interest in obesity stemmed from a realization in the mid-1990s that high uric acid had adverse effects on the kidneys, and that levels of uric acid have risen over the past century.

The question was: why?

“When I looked at the Western diet, I found that we’ve been eating less meat over the last 50 years, but we’re eating a lot more carbohydrates, especially sugar,” he said.

Animal experiments showed that fructose led to higher blood pressure, fatty liver, insulin resistance and weight gain.

“I started studying fructose in great detail and became convinced that it was actually the driver of the whole metabolic syndrome and obesity,” Johnson said.

These days, the American diet is flooded with fructose, present in everything from cereal and crackers to cheese and meat, and most all foods at Chinese and Japanese restaurants, Johnson said.

But there’s also a biological response to fructose that makes it hard for people to lose weight. Johnson calls that the “fat switch.” The mutation, which humans and animals developed thousands of years ago when food was scarce, increases the ability of fructose to stimulate fat.

For Johnson and his colleagues, that’s groundbreaking research that could one day lead to a reversal of the mutation and a cure for obesity.

For now, Johnson says there are a few easy fixes to shedding pounds, as long as people can control the temptation to eat sweets and carbs.

To prevent weight gain, Johnson says to eliminate soda, which is one of the richest sources of sugar. Then, pay attention to nutrition labels and reduce sugar intake. Don’t eat sugared cereals and refrain from drinking concentrated juice and dried fruits. Natural fruits are fine, Johnson said, because they have other nutrients that counteract their inherent fructose.

To lose weight the Richard Johnson way, ease up on both fructose and carbohydrates, which are found in foods such as pasta, bread, and potatoes.

“While sugar seems to be the driving force (to weight gain), you have to restrict carb intake in general because your body can make fructose from carbs even when you’re not eating fructose,” Johnson said.

Exercise is important, too, but people get more out of it if they workout in the morning, he said.

That’s because the body burns carbs before fat, and it takes about eight hours of fasting (or sleeping) to burn carbs. The body will start to burn fat right around 6 a.m., which is the ideal time to step on a treadmill.

To continue burning fat through the morning, Johnson says to disregard the long-held belief that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Instead of a hearty breakfast, drink coffee, eat a piece of dark chocolate or a fruit.

For lunch, abstain from carbs, and choose a salad with meat instead. When the clock strikes dinnertime, carbs can make their daily appearance on your plate.

“Have a regular dinner, but try to be somewhat restrictive,” he said. Don’t overeat, and stop eating after about 8 p.m., he said.

Most importantly, Johnson advises people to realize that mistakes are inevitable, and cravings for chocolate cake can’t always be ignored — especially for recovering sugar-aholics like himself.

“Even if you relapse for a couple of days, it’s such an easy system to re-initiate,” he said.

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]