Katherine Rich: Over-indulgence of calories from all foods key to obesity

24 March 2014

According to Tony Blakely and Nick Wilson (Dominion Post 18/3/2014), Mary Poppins’ administering of sugar to make the medicine go down “might have been doing more harm than good”, as if to suggest even a spoonful of sugar inevitably leads to a life of obesity and ill health. This is nonsense, but again seeks to paint sugar as the new food demon.

Pointing the finger at one nutrient is misleading. Sugar is not the single issue – it’s eating too many calories (of everything!) over a sustained period of time and not balancing that intake with exercise.  

Anti-sugar activists (as opposed to public health advocates) want Kiwis to be scared of sugar. Emotive language is often used, particularly references to addictions to tobacco or drugs. Sugar is described as “hidden”, to imply a sneaky addition, when it’s impossible to sell a cake or an ice cream with the sugar content written on the side. Sugar content of processed foods is clearly labelled.  It’s all part of a campaign to get politicians to implement extra taxes on food, outright bans, and other restrictions that do little more than increase the cost of groceries.

Moderation is a better message than bans and taxes. Sugar has a place in the diet, not just for energy but for providing enjoyment. This is a point often missed by those who want soft drinks and fruit juices banned. Food is not just fuel, it’s something that also provides enjoyment to many people. 

As children, most of us enjoyed sugary foods – honey and jam on toast, ice creams, jelly, and cake. As adults, most of us still like honey on toast in the mornings, an ice cream on a hot day, and a chunk of pavlova on special occasions. But most of us are not obese. Why? Many reasons, but almost surely it’s because we consume these foods in moderation, or as treats, and as part of a balanced diet.

Many things contribute to obesity. Sure, an excess of cakes and other sugary foods every day is not a good diet, but nor is an excess of any food.

Some people suggest sugar is the sole cause of obesity. The science does not support this. In fact, several recent studies indicate that while obesity has been climbing, the intake of sugar has been declining:

  • An Otago University study showed that while obesity was increasing between 1997 and 2008, energy intake was declining.
  • A Sydney University study found that while obesity was rising dramatically in the 23 years to 2003, sugar consumption was falling by 16%.
  • A study in the United Kingdom showed that while obesity was increasing by 15% between 2000 and 2010, consumption of soft drinks containing added sugar was decreasing by 9%.

But even if the science was clear and sugar was a major culprit, the most-often touted solution – that of a tax – would do little more than raise the price of about 30% of all groceries.

Some public health experts say price increases are a barrier to people on low incomes eating healthily, and could lead to a long-term increase in obesity. A tax would put up the price of a huge number of foods for those who could least afford it. A 20c tax on a can of soft drink is not going to make any difference to consumption. Some say New Zealand should mirror the tobacco argument and use tax as the big weapon. But to have the same effect, a can would have to cost around $18, and the chances of people thinking that is a great idea is zero.

If the studies quoted above are any indication, sugar consumption has been on the decline without the need to introduce taxes. They have been tried overseas but failed.

Food manufacturers have recognised for years that there are many variables around obesity.

They are providing greater choice, smaller portion options, and products with fewer calories. Many have been reformulating products for years, resulting in many hundreds of tonnes of sugar, salt, and fat being removed from the food supply each year. Many are involved in the Heart Foundation’s ‘Tick’ scheme, as well as school and community programmes that promote healthy eating and regular exercise, and are part of a voluntary agreement to not sell full-sugar and energy drinks to schools or aim advertising at children.

A simplistic and superficial one-size-fits-all solution to the obesity epidemic is a distraction from having a discussion about the changes in lifestyle that have led to it, and perhaps that’s where we should be looking.

It’s not sugar that’s the problem, it’s over-indulgence of calories from all foods that’s the problem. Moderation and balancing energy in with energy out are the keys to a healthy and satisfying diet.

We must continue to teach our children about healthy diets. It would be a shame to see them robbed of the wonderful taste and fun of sugar in moderation, via honey or ice cream or even a spoonful to help that dose of yucky medicine go down.