Julia Manning is Chief Executive of 2020Health.
Sugar was the health story of yesterday, with both Public Health England and Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) producing reports on the sweet stuff. The advice is for us to only derive five per cent of our daily calorie intake from sugar. But as this BBC report helps to illustrate, I defy anyone to be able to work out (without a calculator and significant time investment) how much sugar they consume. ITV even demonstrated that there are 20 different terms for sugar on food products – so you need at least an ‘A’ level in chemistry before you can begin your calculations.
Much as I sympathise with the need to wean people off a diet of soda-pops, wotsits and donuts (especially children who arrive at school undernourished and over-stimulated), a narrow focus on one ingredient in food is really not going to solve the obesity problem. As Professor John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, commented recently “Obesity is a major health issue…if tackling obesity were as simple as telling people they should eat less and move more, we would not have a problem now.”
The complexity of the situation arises from the interplay of a plethora of evolutionary, historical, scientific, environmental, social and individual factors. The western diet is a product of human nature interacting with various factors including agriculture, industrialisation, environment, access to wealth, technology and medical developments. To give some examples:
- The Agricultural Act of 1947 was the first UK policy to encourage and subsidise mass food production which precipitated the rise to the current over abundant food supply. Why are we still giving subsidies?
- The development of the food industry propagated the increased consumption of processed and ultra-processed foods, typically high in fat and sugar and low in fibre. Foods of this nature commonly have poor satiating qualities (you still feel hungry) and increase overall calorie consumption beyond the caloric load of the food itself. This is poorly understood.
- Proliferation of T.V ownership and the introduction of daytime television came with the 1980s. Increased television viewing is linked with increased body-mass Index, unhealthy diets, decreased physical activity and increased exposure to food advertising. Watching television while eating increases energy consumption. Why have we not taken action on advertising?
So being told to reduce sugar consumption to five per cent will make little difference to our intake when we can still buy four bars of chocolate in a certain frozen food outlet for the price one-and-a-half bars in most supermarkets; when both sweets and drinks can be marketed as ‘sports’ items; when there are no planning regulations limiting fast-food outlets around schools, and when obesogenic vending machines are to be found in many of our NHS hospitals. Confusion will reign whilst food labelling is still so varied, gives no information on nutrition, is printed so small and when ‘low-fat’ is used to imply a product is healthy.
2020health is currently undertaking research into the question: Obesity – Education or Regulation? It aims to demonstrate that we need a package of measures and determined government action if we are going to solve the obesity problem. One ingredient is not a solution that will de-fat us all.