Is there a relationship between the hugely higher modern levels of sugar consumption, and the wave of obesity that has swept over the developed world and is now reaching the poorer countries? WHO thinks so.
Today almost everything has sugar inside it. It’s bad for our teeth, we keep telling ourselves, but scientists are discovering how too much sugar can damage almost every part of the body. Till recently it was thought that if sugar consisted of 30 per cent of your diet, it was fine. Then the American National Academy of Sciences brought this figure down to 25 per cent. And everybody seemed OK with that.
But now, there is a storm brewing. A panel of experts appointed by The World Health Organisation (WHO) has found that it isn’t safe to consume no more than 10 per cent of sugar in our diet. The powerful sugar lobby, alarmed at it’s profits crashing, has rubbished the WHO and threatened to move US Congress and stop funding to the WHO.
More Than Just Cavities
But first, why this restriction and exactly how harmful is sugar to the body? For one, whenever you eat sweets, you get a sugar rush and blood glucose levels rise rapidly. So the pancreas secretes a large amount of insulin to keep glucose levels down. This large insulin response makes blood sugar fall to levels that are too low 3 to 5 hours after the sweets have been eaten. Now, the body doesn’t like this much fluctuation.
Secondly, sugars are just “naked calories”, that is they are packed with energy, but they have no nutrients. No fiber, no minerals, no proteins, no fats, no enzymes. So the body has to borrow vital nutrients from healthy cells to metabolise the incomplete food. Calcium, sodium, potassium and magnesium are taken from various parts of the body to make use of the sugar. That also severely harms the body.
Sugar makes us fat?
In fact, this issue is at the centre of the whole global sugar debate. Last year, the WHO report on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases said that people could reduce their risk of obesity, diabetes and some heart problems by curbing sugar consumption.
Now how does that work? Excess sugar is stored in the liver in the form of glucose (glycogen). Since the liver's capacity is limited, a daily intake of refined sugar above the required amount of makes the liver expand like a balloon. When the liver is filled to maximum, excess glycogen returns to the blood in the form of fatty acids. These are taken to every part of the body and stored in the most inactive areas: the belly, the buttocks, the breasts and the thighs.
Once these are completely filled, fatty acids invade active organs like the heart and kidneys. These begin to slow down; finally their tissues degenerate and turn to fat. This can lead to obesity, diabetes and even certain cardiovascular diseases.
Eat less sugar, right?
No, it’s not as simple as that. Today, almost everything you eat has sugar inside it. From soups to sauces to frozen meat. Some breakfast cereals for children are as much as 50% sugar! In America a flue-cured tobacco was found to have 20% sugar by weight.
Indians had better take note. 25 percent of males and 36 percent of females above the age of 20 years in India are overweight. Our country has always had great sugar surplus (a closing balance of 109 lakh tonnes of sugar at the beginning of the 2002-03 season, enough for seven months). In the era of liberalisation, consumption of soft drinks, fast food and processed foods are on the rise. As we get richer, we also are getting fatter — and unhealthier.
Most of the sugar is consumed invisibly in the form of fast foods and soft drinks.
“Our ancestors had to expend a lot of energy just to get through the day… But now (in many places) food is always available, and technology has made it easy to be sedentary. So it's really the environment that's causing the problem.”
—James Hill, Centre for Human Nutrition,
What does food mean to children of the TV watching generation? Enjoyment? Entertainment? If one looked at all those TV commercials, then one could be forgiven for thinking that junk foods lead to exciting, strong and brainy kids. TV, newspapers, magazines billboards all point in that direction.
Fast food giants spend tonnes of money and make sure that they perpetuate a lifestyle that suits their pockets even at the cost of making millions of people fat. McDonald's, in a single year, spent about $500 million on TV advertisements alone.
The truth is frighteningly different. As teenagers consume more and more colas and burgers, the number of those becoming obese is alarming. While America leads the pack in teenage obesity, India doesn’t lag far behind.
America’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention found 15 percent of children between 6 and 19 to be overweight, thrice the proportion 20 years ago. And a WHObacked survey of Delhi public schools found that 53 per cent children aged 10-14 eat junk food on a daily basis.
In fact, the WHO calls childhood obesity a global epidemic that is spreading into the developing world. In fact, it is catching up with smoking as the leading cause of illness and death.
Food Industry = Entertainment Industry
Sports, entertainment, news, fast food and movies have become barely indistinguishable.According to Public Health Reports, “advertising, pricing and packaging, and availability all encourage Americans to eat more food, not less. The design of neighbourhoods promotes using motor vehicles rather than walking.”
Environmental risk factors that may influence our everyday behaviours include increased exposure to high-calories fast foods, "junk" foods, and refined sugars. Low-income families must often depend on smaller stores that have a limited selection of fresh foods, often at higher cost. Supermarkets have two times the amount of healthy foods as neighbourhood grocery stores, but there are four times as many supermarkets in white neighbourhoods than black neighbourhoods.
That’s pretty getting to be the story of the world. As teenage obesity is on the rise, it is seen that rather than preventing them, the environment and many other factors are actually guiding children to the path of obesity.
The End of Small Farms
The fast food revolution impacts agriculture and environment. For example, McDonald's, the fast food chain is the largest purchaser of beef and potatoes in America, apart from being the second largest producer of poultry. It goes without saying that they influence the policy on agriculture. So fast food companies are industrialising agriculture and pushing small family farmers off the map. In fact, since 1980, America has almost lost one million medium to small-sized family farms. Thanks to the industrialisation of agriculture the US is losing farmers so fast that it now has more prisoners than farmers.
The Cheap Food Argument
Another argument which the fast food industry throws is that fast food is cheap and it helps the economy. The truth is far from that. The American fast food industry is heavily subsidised and there are steep hidden costs of long-distance transportation for other countries.
Issues of Minority
In America, it was found that when it comes to obesity, minorities are disproportionately affected. Studies consistently report a higher prevalence of obesity in African Americans and Mexican Americans compared with the white, non-Hispanic population. In the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999-2000, 23.6% of non-Hispanic blacks and 23.4% of Mexican American adolescents were overweight, a startling near-doubling increase (from 13.4% and 13.8%, respectively) in the past decade. This contrasts markedly with the prevalence of overweight in non-Hispanic whites of 12.7%. The rates for obesity are also greater for minority children. Over 25 percent of Black and Hispanic kids are overweight as against the national average of 15%.
Sweet Trooth Yeh kya ho raha hai?!
Hi! I’m Sugar Puff papa. I just luuuvvvv anything that is sugary. Sweets, pastries, soft drinks....yummy yum. I thought sugar would just kill my teeth and I was ready to live with that but...
“I’ve got diabetes. So my doctor has told me to stop eating sweets altogether”
“These dentists are millionaires. I’m going to make my son a dentist! I thought I’d just have a some cavities, but I have a full set of false teeth now. And my gums ache too.”
“My doctor says I’m prone to a heart attack. But I have no family history of the disease!”
“My colds and coughs have become more frequent.”
“These wretched headaches! Aspirins work no more on me. This definitely can’t be because of sweets.”
“My bones ache all the time. My doctor tells me that I’ve got osteoporosis.”
“I’m not as strong as I used to be. I guess it’s old age.”
“Gallstones from sugar? Not possible!”