The dangers of falling for sugar's sweet nothings
From sports drinks to convenience foods, kids are surrounded by the temptations of highly addictive sugar, and they need parents' help in breaking the habit, writes Áilín Quinlan
Like it or lump it, few of us get through the day without a spoonful of sugar – or two, or 10. But that's not a problem, we could eat a hunk of cucumber instead any time we wanted a snack – or could we?
It seems our desire to mainline sugar on a fairly regular basis may be less because we're in need of a little energy boost – and more because we're addicted to it. Take our consumption of sugary drinks – referred to as 'liquid sugar' by obesity specialist and endocrinologist Dr Donal O'Shea.
Such drinks, he says, are not only highly addictive, but their widespread consumption is a major driver of Ireland's child-obesity epidemic. It's a no-brainer, really. If you drink such drinks regularly, he warns, your body forms the habit of getting this high energy kick-back.
"We know that liquid sugar lights up the parts of the brain that are lit up by alcohol or any of the drugs," he explains. "Human nature is very addictive and we all have addictions. Food is one of them and liquid sugar is a particular one."
For some time now, O'Shea has been waging an unremitting war against obesity. A major focus for him is the consumption of sugary drinks by children and teenagers – and the subtle marketing strategies used to sell them. "The problem is that the way sugary drinks are promoted and marketed is aimed at getting young kids drinking them," he explains.
"If you go to any sports club you'll see the kids running out for their first training sessions of the season and they will have their new boots and their shin-guards and their sports drink – they almost think the drink is part of the kit! It's hard to break that."
Coaches and trainers must get the message out to kids that these drinks will not make them fitter, faster or stronger, he says – but there's a problem.
"A lot of coaches are sucked in by the advertising, and when I tell them the drinks don't work and actually make no difference to performance, they're really surprised. They believe they make a difference because the advertising's very convincing. You're meant to have your sugar in the form of carbohydrate, for example in rice or pasta or an apple, where you also get a delivery of fibre, vitamins or minerals. In a sugary drink you just get the energy hit."
Another problem is that sweetened drinks habituate your taste-buds to sweet, skewing the palate and predisposing you to a desire for more sugar, he warns.
And he's not only talking about fizzy or sports drinks – according to Safefood, even a 200ml serving of a popular juice drink was found to contain as much sugar as the equivalent serving of a well-known soft drink such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi or 7-Up, while some brands of cordials and dilutes were found to contain even higher sugar levels.
But there's also a lot of sugar in the solid food our children are eating. The use of sugar is common across the entire food industry, where foods are developed to be highly preserved and highly palatable, says O'Shea – food technology can now make something palatable, long-lasting and more-ish, using high levels of sugar, salt and fat.
While we must respect the fact that the food industry is only doing its job, he says, we also "have to point out that the way they're doing it is driving an obesity epidemic that is killing thousands of people and harming children psychologically and physically."
The Safefood TV campaign on portion size and sugar-sweetened drinks is touching a nerve, he believes.
"It's really good. It's very direct. It is the kind of advertising we need more of. The messages are very clear. Advertising tends to hit home when you are ready to hear the message and I think increasing numbers of people are ready to hear the message. Those ads are really important and have the potential to make a difference. They'll run over a five-year period, so we need to support that kind of advertising and think of good ways of getting through to people and policy makers."
That's important, because parents are a crucial element in the fight against obesity, he believes. "It's well-established that parents and guardians are responsible for 95pc of what goes into a child's mouth until the age of 12.
"It's in the home that the difference will be made. No parent wants a child to be unwell or harmed in any way, so what parents have to be brought to realise is that they're inadvertently harming their child by allowing them to consume these sugar-sweetened drinks in the current pattern of consumption. Parents are allowing the food industry to poison their children.
"Parents need to change to see themselves as protecting their children from the pattern of consumption that the food industry needs to maintain its profits. Parents don't have a problem saying 'no' to a child having a cigarette or a can of beer. They must adopt similar attitudes to the repeated consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks."
We've sleepwalked into this epidemic, he says; to stop it we must implement fundamental changes in how we eat, drink and exercise. Hope lies in helping parents understand the blatant harm this pattern of consumption is causing to their children.
"Last year there was a study published that showed that the pattern of consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks was driving Type Two diabetes – there was absolute proof in terms of medical evidence. It was the first comprehensive acknowledgement that the sugar-sweetened drinks were driving disease."
On paper, he says, the escape route is not difficult, but, O'Shea acknowledges, because it depends so much on behaviour change, it won't be at all easy.
However the more we focus on parents' desire to protect children from harm, the more likely we will be to change, he believes.
"We've done work with the National Child Research Centre, looking at obese children in Crumlin Hospital. There are children as young as six who are turning on the genes that cause diabetes and switching off the genes that defend against cancer.
"Obesity is doing that. We've compared these children to age-matched controls and it's clearly directly related to their body mass so the bigger they are, the more they're switching off their defence against cancer and switching on their cancer genes."
This is "not a familial genetic thing" he emphasises, it's directly related to how big the children are.
We're not just on the edge of the cliff, warns O'Shea – we've plummeted right over it. "In terms of the obesity problem we're snowed under in the diabetes clinics with people in their late teens and early twenties. They have what used to be a disease of 50-year-olds. The future is with us. We're in a disaster situation."