There’s no doubt that sugary drinks are under attack – quite rightly in our view. But will adding a tax to them, as proposed in the UK, or banning large-size ‘sodas' as happened in New York, dent the spiralling obesity epidemic?
Low sugar, high danger
Last week, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, representing the UK’s 220,000 doctors, called for a 20% tax on fizzy drinks, fewer fast food outlets near schools and a ban on unhealthy food in hospitals.
As we showed in our piece last week, artificially sweetened, low-sugar variants are likely at least as bad as the full-sugar originals, and a host of other dietary and lifestyle factors are involved in the current obesity epidemic that is currently plaguing society. Workable solutions must, therefore, go beyond taxation and address the wider reasons why so many children are becoming obese.
Youthful sugar junkies
Mean total sugar intakes in UK kids, as determined in the comprehensive National Diet & Nutrition Survey (NDNS), are 63 g/day for girls and 75 g/day for boys. But the averages tell us little about what the biggest sugar-eaters manage to consume daily. Drawing again on data from the NDNS in the UK, the top 2.5% of sugar-eating girls manage to consume a whopping 138 g/day, which itself is overshadowed by the huge 164 g/day for boys. We must remember that that even these are averages, so there will be some days when consumption considerably exceeds these figures!
The question for many is: how easy is to become a sugar junkie?
A bad day’s diet
Using the US National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference [http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/] and Nutrition Facts information from various products, we evaluated the sugars in what might be a typical bad day’s eating for some kids.
The analysis revealed a staggering 223 g of sugar, 135% greater than the 164 g average for boys in the top 2.5% of sugar-consuming kids! But there’s no doubt this is what some kids are eating, even though very few will do it daily.
In the above hypothetical diet, there was only one fizzy drink: a 330 mL can of Coca-Cola. This beverage delivered the second-highest sugar content, surpassed only by the McDonald’s vanilla shake that contained over twice as much sugar. But removing the Coke from the diet would not make a huge difference: while it contributed around 16% to the day’s total sugar intake, there would still be a very hefty 188 g of sugar to contend with without it.
Watch those calories – and where’s the veg and fruit?
Another point worthy of note is the calorific content of the hypothetical day’s diet. At 2,805 kcal, it represented 156% of the guideline amount recommended by the UK government for 5–10 year olds.
Combine this with the sedentary lifestyles that have become part and parcel of so many children’s lives, and it’s easy to see both why ready-made and take-away foods and beverages represent such a threat to the future health of today’s children.
Add to this a lack of vegetables, fruit, fibre and phytonutrients that prevents the function of essential metabolic processes – from energy generation and fat utilisation, through to protection from oxidative processes – you have the time bomb that the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC) spoke of earlier this week.
But to simply place a tax on fizzy drinks, as proposed by the AMRC, will likely have a trivial effect, even if it slows the consumption of fizzy drinks. As the EU obesity strategy demonstrated through its failure to have any effect on obesity, policies have little effect.
How children are brought up and what influences they receive when they are young, both from their families and their peers, will likely have much more profound effects. And this requires engagement of all of society, especially young families.
How you can help kids whom you are responsible for
Here are some of our suggestions for what can be done to help reduce the obesity epidemic through focusing on our young ones:
- Educate and ‘adapt’ the palate: Avoid giving kids sweet foods regularly. Occasionally, as a treat, they are fine, but certainly not every day. Avoid giving kids desserts 6 days a week, or sweet snacks between meals. Get your children used to consuming a range of foods with different tastes, including bitter and sour foods. Explain the health benefits of these healthier foods, as well as the harm posed by regularly consuming sweet foods
- Home food preparation: Processed and ready-made foods often contain large amounts of sugar. Children should primarily consume home-prepared meals comprised of whole foods. They should also engage as much as possible in the food selection and preparation/cooking process. Passing these skills on to the next generation is one of the many responsibilities of parents or carers
- Eliminate processed foods from the diet, as far possible: Processed foods contain a whole host of ingredients that are not nutrients. They serve a technological function that might preserve or stabilise the food to prevent it from spoiling. In the process, enzymes that are needed for digestion do not function as nature intended, and such foods may not be well digested. The main nutritional ingredients in these foods, such as proteins or fats, as well as micronutrients like vitamins, may also have been heavily denatured by the processing method
- Stop regular snacking: Snacks between meals provide a major source of unnecessary energy that often cannot be sufficiently burned off in the context of sedentary lifestyles. Snacking also tends to contribute to higher levels of internal inflammation, preventing the body from ‘dampening its fire’ between meals. Fasting for 5 hours between meals and consuming only water between meals forms the basis of a very healthy lifestyle, despite it being diametrically opposed to the heavy advertising of commercially produced snacks that has become the norm in Western societies
- Cut out added sugar: There is simply no need to add sugar to any meal. Full stop!
- Cut out inflammatory foods: Dairy and gluten are staples in Western societies, and both cause inflammation and increase the risk of chronic disease in later life. Any child that has recurrent bouts of indigestion, bloating or wind should be tested for gluten and dairy intolerance, and/or put on a 30-day exclusion diet to see if the symptoms disappear. It’s important to replace any nutrients that are missing during the exclusion diet, and guidance can be sought from a qualified and experienced nutritional practitioner
- Drink water: Many fruit drinks and beverages are loaded with sugar. Our bodies need water to drink, not sugar
- Non-sugar coping strategies: During periods of stress, it is normal for people to be drawn to sweet ‘comfort foods’, given that the human gut–brain connection has evolved over millennia to associate sugary foods with reward. But doing this repeatedly, on the same or consecutive days, leads to a dependency on sugar as an energy source, and prevents the body from using more complex energy-harvesting pathways, such as those involving fats and proteins. Team sports and other physical activity, high-quality social interactions, music and a host of other hobbies can provide kids with many other ways of coping with stress
- Become more physically active: Some would argue this is easier said than done, but it’s a matter of finding ways of incorporating physical activity into children’s lives. A great starting point is by helping kids to reduce sedentary activities! This may involve reducing (or even eliminating for at least part of the week) TV viewing. Helping kids get more active will invariably involve more parental or adult support, but walking or cycling to school, or signing up with after-school clubs, can be invaluable. Kids should find ways of engaging in moderate to intense physical activity for 1–2 hours every day. This level of activity is required for a multitude of reasons: for healthy growth and development; to build strong bones and muscles; to improve balance and develop motor skills; to maintain and develop flexibility and maintain a healthy weight; to improve cardiovascular fitness; to reduce stress and feel more relaxed; to improve posture; to boost confidence and self-esteem; and to have fun with their friends and make new ones!
- Exercising in a fasting state: An increasing body of science is informing us about why our ancestors carried so much lean muscle and so little fat. One key factor was hunting and gathering on an empty stomach. This is very valuable for fat-burning. Not only that, but emerging research is showing us that exercising in a fasting state also helps trigger the body’s production of very important anti-inflammatory and immune-regulating proteins, like lactoferrin. Thirty minutes of intense activity before breakfast, be it a run around the park, a swim or a ballgame in the backyard, can be very helpful if limited to once or twice a week. Breakfast should then include a significant amount of protein – not just carbohydrates.
ANH Food4Health campaign page
Updated: 20 Feb 2013