February 12, 2016
Non-infectious diseases (such as heart disease and cancer) have recently surpassed transmittable diseases to become the greatest threat to human health; contributing to around 35 million deaths per year1. However, in contrast to many infectious diseases (such as malaria and tuberculosis), heart disease and cancer are truly global in their extent, affecting both developed and developing nations around the world. They are also strongly influenced by people’s lifestyle choices.
Cigarettes and alcohol have long been recognised as two lifestyle risk factors that contribute to the development of non-communicable diseases. For this reason, the consumption of tobacco and alcohol is regulated throughout much of the world. However, there is a third lifestyle risk factor, in the form of diet, that is still completely unregulated. Evidence for this dietary threat can be seen throughout the world, with rising rates of obesity—most worryingly among children. However, there is a common misconception that obesity is the cause of many non-communicable diseases. Instead, the truth is more alarming: obesity is just one of a whole range of symptoms associated with a much greater health risk, known as the metabolic syndrome. Indeed, 40% of people, of normal body mass, will still develop the same diseases usually associated with obesity, as a result of non-contagious metabolic dysfunction—including: diabetes, hypertension, lipid problems, cardiovascular disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, cancer and dementia1. Thus, the health problems associated with diet are on a much larger scale than the obesity crisis would appear to suggest. But, which part of the human diet poses the greatest risk to health?
As soon as the obesity crisis came to light, researchers and public health officials went searching for a smoking gun, and fixed their focus firmly on fats. Saturated fats, typically associated with a fast-food Western diet, were particularly targeted and, as a result, we were all told to avoid them. But, now it’s increasingly apparent that they had the wrong guy: the real bogeyman in this saga is sugar! Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that sugar, in excessive doses, has a similar toxicity to alcohol; resulting in very similar symptoms. The scientists don’t mince their words:
“A little [sugar] is not a problem, but a lot kills — slowly.” Robert H. Lustig, Department of Pediatrics and the Center for Obesity Assessment, University of California, USA.
Revealing the true face of sugar raises a real problem for many people. The food industry loves sugar. It adds it liberally to almost everything it makes, be it sweet or savoury! Indeed, it must be a food manufacturers dream ingredient: as it’s as cheap as chips and people can’t get enough of it—especially children. And, after years of conflicting dietary advice, many people have also disengaged from the food debate and are now completely immune to public health campaigns. In other words, the problem is unlikely to resolve itself. At this point, you would expect government to step in and take control. In the UK, this could be about to happen, with the anticipated publication this month of the government’s long-awaited strategy on obesity. So, what can we expect?
In a recent interview, on BBC TV, the Health Secretary (Jeremy Hunt) described the rise in childhood obesity as a “national emergency”. He also promised a “game changing” response from the government—despite David Cameron’s previous opposition to a sugar tax. However, according to Mr Hunt, a sugar tax, or “something equally robust” is still on the table. New taxes are never popular among voters or politicians, so it remains to be seen whether the government is prepared to go down this road. Previous experience, with alcohol and tobacco, has demonstrated that taxation is the most effective tool for curbing consumption—as long as the level of taxation is set high enough and it targets the right products. Meanwhile, health campaigners, including celebrity chief, Jamie Oliver, have vowed to intensify their campaign unless a tax is introduced. So there could be trouble in the kitchen, if campaigners don’t get their way!
In the meantime, irrespective of government policy, there’s still plenty that parents and childcare workers can do to alleviate the problem. Clearly, some dietary items are worse for children’s health than others, and the main ones to avoid include: fizzy drinks; artificially-sweetened juices and squashes; “energy drinks”; chocolate and other flavoured milks, as well as sugar-encrusted breakfast cereals. Sweets, cakes and biscuits should also be regarded as treats, rather than everyday staples—for both children and adults! Life will never be the same again!
Rob Hodgkison, Harmony at Home Ltd. All Rights Reserved, 2016