Obesity in the UK is massive (BMI of more than 30) – yes that pun was intentional. By 2050 half the population will be obese according to The National Obesity Forum (1) and it will cost the nation £50 billion a year (2). Currently around 26% of the population of England, Scotland (3) and Wales (4) is classed as obese. In 1978 only about 6% of the UK was classed as obese (5), roughly 3.4million people from a population of just over 56 million. In 2014, with a population of around 63 million that means 16.4 million are now classified as obese (not to mention those termed overweight). By 2050, the UK’s population is estimated to rise to 77million (6) – meaning 33.5 million obese citizens, again not taking into account those verging on obese and deemed overweight.
Currently the average man in England is 5ft 9in (175.3cm) tall and weighs 13.16 stone (83.6kg), for that height obesity kicks in at 14.5 stone (92kg). For the average woman in England, weighing 11 stone (70.2kg) at 5ft 3in (161.6cm) means the obese version is 12 stone (76kg) (7).
To give you some idea of context – an average sumo wrestler weighs 181kg/28 stone and is roughly 6ft tall, that makes him clinically obese. His average daily calorie consumption is 20,000 calories largely comprised of carbohydrates (8). So ask yourself, how many wannabe sumos have you seen on the streets who might look the part but certainly don’t do the training?
Despite the prevalence of health advice – from NHS, from the government, from magazines such as Men’s Health (and now Man V Fat) and a multitude of websites, blogs, podcasts, twitter etc, British men are still piling on the pounds’ so the question is why? Unfortunately the answer is most mainstream information on nutrition is wrong, misguided or in bed with the processed food manufacturers and the biggest culprit is sugar.
Today, the UK promotes an eat well plate (NHS) that is 1/3 carbs, 1/3 fruit and veg and the remaining third is meat, fish, dairy and a tiny proportion is allocated to sugary drinks and fruit juices. But it fails to acknowledge that literally thousands of nutritionally depleted calories can be consumed via beverages. Typically a daily diet consists of refined carbs such as breads, pasta, meat, fish, vegs and grain, sugary drinks, fruit juice, fruit smoothies, low fat yoghurts and snacks. In America, approximately 20 – 40% of daily calories are in the form of sugar (Lustig, 2013), with no nutritional value. As a result obesity and type 2 diabetes, which can have severe health implications and reduce mortality (basically you die a lot sooner), are major threats to the health and wealth of our society.
In 1983 the UK changed its dietary advice (shortly after America in 1977) and introduced national guidelines (9) emphasising carbs – prior to this it was protein and plenty of butter, avoiding sugar! Why the change? Some say intense lobbying from the agricultural industry that had a surplus of grain and was developing new sweeteners (high fructose corn syrup). This change was brought about by big agricultural companies lobbying the government in order to sell more grain and cereal based products. It was at this point that obesity began to grip the nation.
But what has this got to do with sugar, it sounds more like an old conspiracy episode from the X-Files? The fact is that that innocent white substance that permeates every single facet of our edible lives is a toxic substance whose cumulative effect is to disguise the nutritional deficiencies of highly processed foods. Sugar supplants the removal of good calories (fat); which would normally tell your body when it was full, with empty or zero calories where the body gets the hit of sweetness and constantly craves it without getting full.
Sounds great – you get a hit and no calories, win-win. Unfortunately it does not work like that. In his ground breaking book Fat Chance, and subsequent YouTube presentation Sugar – The Bitter Truth, Dr Robert Lustig explains how the body processes sugar (sucrose, 1 part glucose and 1 part fructose), through the liver. All well and good as the whole body and brain needs glucose but it only needs some as it can make glucose from protein and fat. But only the liver process fructose and too much gets stored as visceral fat (not good) and suppresses the on/off for insulin production (pancreatic hormone that regulates energy storage) – so you keep producing it, and it also suppresses the hunger hormone ghrelin, which tells you when you are full and leptin that also regulates energy storage but is affected by insulin. And unfortunately this combination is not good, you eat more sugar, you get fatter but your body will not tell you are full and your hormone’s go into overdrive (not to mention stress hormone cortisol).
The interesting point Lustig makes is that fat does not get processed in quite the same way as it is easily broken down and used for energy by the body – but only when the body is not fed by sugar.
He also looks at the different levels of sweetness in sugar and then its derivatives, used in processed food, which are many times sweeter, a list of which are included in the following table, where sucrose (table sugar) is rated as 100 and other sweeteners/sugars are either lower in sweetness, or much much higher.
Until fairly recently this message was not getting heard by mainstream media. It looks like there is a growing groundswell of opinion that this is something to be concerned about particularly for a nation that thinks it healthy to give fruit juice and cereal to children for breakfast. Examples include several recent articles in the The Mail, a mainstream book, I Quit Sugar, Sarah Wilson, 2014, on beating sugar addiction and the likes of Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans who stokes the flames every now and then (08/05/2014 – 8:15am on iPlayer)
So what can we do? Here’s a potential five step plan.
1) Educate yourself; have a look at the work some of the experts and leading players in the fight against sugar have done in exposing the risks sugar poses. Read/watch and then decide for yourself.
Professor Robert Lustig, Sugar The Bitter Truth
Gary Taubes – Why We Get Fat (2011)
John Yudkin, Pure White & Deadly (Penguin – pdf available online, just have a look) and you can read an obituary of him from 1995 here
Fed Up – a film that exposes the American sugar industry, just watch the trailer and try not to be concerned!
Action on Sugar – specialists trying to persuade government to do something about the public’s addiction to sugar
2) Familiarise yourself with terms for sugar and its sweetener derivatives, look at each label when you buy any product that isn’t from the veg section of your supermarket. There is a detailed list on the following blog liveto110
3) Understand that the food industry is an industry, it lobbies the government to be able to sell food with the least regulation possible and does not always have a person’s health at heart because the individual company will not see its individual products as being harmful (after all they are legal). It is when all these individual products are habitually and addictively eaten that a problem occurs – but that is no one company’s fault! So it is up to you.
2012 Olympics’ main sponsors, MacDonalds, Coke, Cadburys
And Zoe Harcombe produced a reasoned argument against such sponsorship in this article.
Have a look at Authority Nutrition to see some of the tactics (similar to the tobacco industry in years gone past) the sugar industry uses to package and market the substance.
4) Understand that the diet industry uses ignorance of what constitutes food as a way of selling highly processed low calorie foods that are stuffed with sugar in order to replace fat – which is where the taste is and which would normally make you feel full! Don’t believe me, look at food labels as you buy. If you need a science degree to read it then is it really food?
5) Start to cut back straight away:
1 – Ditch sugar from tea and coffee, cut down then phase out.
2 – Drop all fizzy drinks on their own and with your alcohol – to help you, when you feel like a glass of cola pour the equivalent size glass of water. Add 10 teaspoons of sugar to the water. Try to drink it. Then, if you still want the cola go for it but at least you can’t say you don’t know what you are doing
3 – Drop or severely cut back on fruit juices, each glass contains around 8 teaspoons of sugar and most don’t even have any nutritional value as the fibre is removed.
(Basically don’t drink sugar, Lustig estimates 33% of sugar consumption is via a drink of some sort – we will look at alcohol in future)
4 – Track the sweets and snacks you eat. Look at the ingredients then decide whether to eat or not, even a moment’s hesitation will help you to build up the nerve to stop.
5 – Avoid cold turkey (not the meat, the process of suddenly stopping) but work on breaking old habits (sweets at the cinema, munching on front of TV)
Sound easy and straightforward? It is not, it is difficult and will take resolve, effort and a few headaches but it can be done and afterwards you will feel better for it. No one says there can’t be sweet treats in your life but don’t let them rule or ruin your life (I am currently 85-90% sugar free, another intentional pun).
Final thought, obese men cannot see their toes or their tackle and in some cases end up needing help to wipe their backsides. Is that where you want to end up?
Ditch the sugar dish and break the sugar habit.
Ps. Not all the issues around sugar have been addressed in this piece but look at the experts mentioned above and you will see the full range of the argument. If you have questions or comments feel free to post them – unless you are part of the sugar industry!
Some sources of further information
(9) National Advisory Committee on Nutrition Education (1983) A Discussion Paper on Proposals for Nutritional Guidelines for Health Education in Britain. London: Health Education Council