A hard pill to swallow

“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, the medicine go down, the medicine go down.”

So sang Julie Andrews in 1964’s Mary Poppins. My recent reading around the sorry subject of sugar has led me to the realisation that what the irritatingly upbeat, Civil Aviation Authority-bothering nanny should have been singing was more along the lines of “a spoonful of sugar makes the eventual routine consumption of medicine significantly more likely, significantly more likely, significantly more likely.”

But that doesn’t scan nearly so well.

So what did Mary miss? Certainly, a spoonful of sugar is much more likely to appeal to you or to me or to chirpy movie children than a glug of medicine. A helping of sugar appeals to nearly everyone because of one simple truth: it tastes really good.

The problem being, that it seems to be doing us no end of damage as well.

Pancake1Which is a cheery thought, is it not? I don’t mean to depress you – I am naturally quite upbeat, I promise – but it doesn’t take long, tapping away at a computer, to find worrying warnings about sugar. But that’s the internet, you cry, a black hole of paranoia and self-perpetuating hysteria. And you are not wrong. You can convince yourself of the worst the possible things if you spend too long on the internet. I once logged on to try to self-diagnose a footballing injury and, following the trail of symptoms from site to site like a pessimistic paperchase, I concluded that I had broken my leg. In two places. I was panicking for a while until I remembered that I quite clearly hadn’t, in fact, broken my leg. At all. So I do realise that it is easy to overreact when trawling the web.

But… the evidence seems to stack up. Only this month, there were calls for the recommended daily intake of sugar to be halved. This recommendation was made in a report by the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee of Nutrition, and was publicly supported by Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS.

But what’s the problem?

We are too fat. There is an obesity pandemic (or, to steal an Al Murray joke, a chip-pandemic) and, however you carve up the numbers about the size of the problem, the problem is size. For example, children born since 1990 are up to three times more likely than older generations to be overweight or obese by age 10 (Medical Research Council). In the UK, “one third of children and two thirds of all adults [are] classified as obese or overweight” (Action on Sugar) and “many of us have too many high-sugar foods and drinks too often. Added sugar is not necessary for a healthy diet” (Association of UK Dietitians).

A particular concern is diabetes. “We know that the high and increasing number of people with Type 2 diabetes is due to the growing number of people in our society who are overweight or obese” say Diabetes UK.

And sugar is to blame?

It is not clear that eating a lot of sugar directly causes diabetes, but there is certainly a correlation between the two. As Diabetes UK explains:

“At the moment there are two hypotheses:

1. Sucrose causes Type 2 diabetes by making us gain weight

2. Sucrose causes Type 2 diabetes through another mechanism

The evidence for the first hypothesis is strong. Eating too many calories – including those from sugar – can make a significant contribution to becoming overweight and being overweight increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. And a number of studies have shown that, particularly in children, regularly drinking sugary drinks can cause weight gain as these drinks are high in calories and not very filling. Evidence for the second hypothesis, that sucrose may cause Type 2 diabetes through a mechanism other than weight gain, is less clear.”

So, sugar is not to blame?

As various food and drink industry voices point out, including Ian Wright (no, not that one – this one is the Director General of the Food and Drink Federation), sugar does not directly cause diabetes. Probably. But eating too much sugar can make us overweight. And being overweight increases our chances of getting  type 2 diabetes.

Fed Up

Fed Up

I mentioned in a previous post that I had watched Fed Up, a documentary about America’s battle with obesity. The filmmakers, and their talking heads, lay a significant portion of the blame at sugar’s door. It is certainly true that not everyone agrees with the claims made in the film. If you have watched the documentary, then you should probably read this critique as well, just to give balance to the argument.

Whatever the truth of the claims and rebuttals, no one seems to be in any doubt that there is a need for an improvement in diet and an improvement in education about diet. For example, this well-written analysis of the film, begins with a clear statement that:

“It should be stated emphatically at the outset that obesity—the subject of Fed Up—particularly in the United States and other industrialized nations has unquestionably reached epidemic proportions. It demands serious approaches guided by sound science.The filmmakers deserve credit for helping keep this major societal challenge front and center in our collective consciousness, and for trying to move the debate in a new direction.”

Having said that, they don’t believe that Fed Up’s claims are taking us in the correct direction: “unfortunately, their compass is broken”.

What is under debate – aside from the potentially dubious science on display in the documentary – seems to be the singular role that sugar plays in the film’s explanation of the obesity dilemma. When you conclude that sugar is the root of all of America’s obesity problems then you can construct a compelling and, crucially, an easily-understood argument. Sadly, it would appear that it is too simple an argument. The balanced view seems to be that there are lots of things that can cause us to be overweight, not just sugar, so we cannot focus solely on just that one thing.

But it is one thing that I can try to address. Sorting out our sugar consumption won’t cure all ills, but it probably will help and it is somewhere that I can start.

Mrs Gills cakes

The end of cake?

I worry that I am coming across like the fifth horseman of the apocalypse. War, famine, pestilence, death? Bring ’em on. But take away our cake and we may just riot. Certainly it is not a world that I am prepared to live in just yet.

As we saw in a previous post, exercise has a big part to play in finding a balance between the calories-in and the calories-out, so running and football all help in the battle to find my energy flux. But I believe that I also need to find ways to cut my sugar consumption in order to help lighten the load on the “in” side of the equation.

And there are plenty of places to look, aside from cake. Places you may not think sugar would lurk, as we shall see next time…

Please remember, this is my bid to work out what’s the Right Thing for me to do. I’m sharing my thoughts as I go, in case it helps others to start thinking about what is right for them. I’m not an expert, I’m just inquisitive and have access to the internet. Please bear that in mind when making your own choices.


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