Friday 15 November 2019

Why the health experts are souring on sugar

Professor Donal O’Shea
Professor Donal O’Shea

Irish and international experts are divided on whether sugar is addictive or the main culprit in the spiralling obesity crisis.

In a bid to combat tooth decay and excessive weight gain the World Health Organisation is about to recommend a drastic reduction in the amount of added sugar we eat. WHO is set to recommend a maximum daily intake of 10pc of calories from sugar - around 12 teaspoons. But it will state that ideally consumers should aim for half that - just six teaspoons a day - for greater health benefits.

Dr Donal O'Shea, an endocrinologist and head of the Obesity Management Clinic in Loughlinstown Hospital, said he believed sugar was addictive.

"The pattern of consumption of sugar in Ireland is highly abnormal, and the parts of the brain that light up when it's eaten fit in with the theory that it is addictive," he said.

The extreme difficulty people had cutting back on sugar - and the cravings many experienced after years of habitual overconsumption - also backed up the addiction argument.

Dr O'Shea welcomed the new WHO guidelines as hugely "impressive and ambitious". He said that while they might seem drastic, added sugar hadn't existed in our diets until 400 years ago, but it was now ubiquitous in everything from breakfast cereals to chocolate milk and sweetened drinks.

He predicted a "societal revolt" within 15 years against the harmful effects of sugar and tough regulation in the form of taxes and bans on sales of products such as sweetened drinks to under-16s.

However, Dr Mary Flynn, chief nutrition specialist in the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), strongly disagreed that sugar was addictive or the biggest cause of Ireland's obesity crisis. She said it was vital "not to let fat off the hook" for its contribution to weight gain.

"The biggest problem in our diet is fatty foods - and sugary, fatty foods are probably the worst of all," she said.

Sugar was not the problem in isolation, but the difficulty was that it made nearly everything more palatable, particularly high-fat foods like doughnuts, that you wouldn't eat much of unless they were sweet.

Dr Flynn said she opposed the new WHO guidelines, as they were too extreme, and people would not be able to cut so much sugar from their diet without losing out on other crucial nutrients, such as calcium.

"If you're going to eat sugar, the way to eat it is to add a little to healthy foods like porridge to make them more palatable," she said.

International experts at a recent FSAI seminar rejected the notion that junk foods were addictive saying they didn't alter the brain the way cocaine or alcohol did, and people weren't tempted to consume raw sugar to feed their habit.

A leading anti-sugar campaigner Professor Robert Lustig, however, has argued that sugar is toxic because it results in leptin resistance, which means our brains don't know when we're full - possibly an evolutionary throwback to our ancestors' need to gorge on ripe fruit in the autumn before food supplies dried up in the winter.

Sugar also overloads our liver, resulting in overproduction of insulin, blood-sugar crashes, cravings for more and eventually insulin resistance and diabetes, he argued.

"Whether it fits the criterion for addiction is irrelevant; the stuff is abused. You get hooked at an early age, and it's harder to kick the habit after years of prolonged usage," he wrote in his best-selling book 'Fat Chance'.

Controlling your intake

Become label-smart

Make a habit of reading - and heeding - what's printed on the back of every pack. Recognise the words manufacturers use for sugar - and often more than one type features. Watch out for glucose, fructose, dextrose, lactose, maltose, sucralose, malotodextrose, "invert sugars", any sort of "syrup" and natural sugars such as molasses, honey and agave.

Cook from scratch

There's added sugar in all sorts of convenient staples - such as pasta sauce, mayonnaise, soups and dressings. You know what goes in to food you prepare.

Cut the cravings

Lose the big brand juices and smoothies, dried fruit, breakfast cereals and 'diet' yogurts; they all have far more sugar in them than you'd think.

Start that day the protein way

Opt instead for porridge with seeds and grated/stewed apple or scrambled eggs, or mash half an avocado with egg on to multigrain toast in the morning.

What happened to the sugar tax?

The Department of Health says that a tax on sugary soft drinks is still being considered to discourage consumption.

The Royal College of Physicians and the Irish Heart Foundation have repeatedly called for a tax on sweetened fizzy drinks and fruit juices to combat Ireland's mounting obesity and diabetes crisis.

Previous efforts by Health Minister James Reilly to persuade the Government to sanction a tax failed despite a report showing it could potentially reduce the numbers of overweight and obese adults by 14,000.

The Irish Heart Foundation said a 20pc tax could raise almost €60m, and sweetened drinks are an ideal target for the tax as they have no nutritional value, are high in calories and can easily be replaced with water. Irish people drink around 83 litres of sweetened drink per capita each year, and teenage boys drink the most of all, according to consultant endocrinologist Dr Donal O'Shea who is head of the Obesity Management Clinic in Loughlinstown.

Two in three Irish adults and one in four primary schoolchildren is overweight or obese - which leads to hugely increased risks for Type 2 diabetes.

The department said that a soft drinks tax is still being considered.

Irish Independent

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