The first recommendations on carbohydrate intake were proposed in the 1980’s and 90’s by COMA which has since disbanded. Since then overwhelming evidence has mounted which shows carbohydrate consumption to be associated with many of today’s current health problems. More specifically, the type of carbohydrate and the consumption of simple sugars and refined carbohydrates has become an increasing concern. High sugar intake is implicated as a significant risk factor for diabetes, fatty liver disease and obesity and receives a large amount of focus for current health initiatives and government policy on the recommendations for sugar intake.
Prevalence of weight related disease
In the UK 57% of adults are overweight and obese which is predicted to reach around 70% by 2034 (Public Health England Obesity Knowledge and Intelligence team, 2016). Children in the UK are following a similar trend with 25% of them being over weight and obese. The prevalence of doctor-diagnosed diabetes in adults increased between 1994 and 2014 from 2.9% to 7.1% and 1.9% to 5.3% for men and women respectively. The cost of obesity to the NHS is £5.1 billion (Scarborough et al., 2011) and the cost of treating diabetes and the complications that result from it in 2010/11 was £9.8 billion a year which is projected to be over £16.9 billion by 2035/36 (Hex et al., 2012). However, the NHS has refuted claims about potential bankruptcy in the future (Nhs.uk, 2012) despite such claims circulating in the media (Google.co.uk, 2015).
Actual sugar consumption has fallen over the past 40 years while consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and foods have risen. Children ages 4-10 are said to consume on average just over 60g of sugar a day, equating to 5,543 sugar cubes or 22kg of sugar in one year (Gov.uk, 2016). Sugar consumption is highest among school age children and low income families. However, a high consumption of sugary foods is not justified by a low income when you consider a bag of bananas or apples can be purchased at a lower price which contains natural sugars, as well as vitamins and minerals. The biggest source of sugar for kids are juices and soft drinks, although for ages 19-64 one of the biggest sources of sugar comes from table sugar. However, this may be attributed to Britain’s cultural obsession with Tea.
Parents perception of child weight status and health
The fact that 42% of parents do not recognise their children to be overweight or obese when they are (Public Health England, 2015) also contributes to the problem. A study showed parents of overweight and obese children considered happiness, diet and activity level to be more important than body weight as an indicator of health, despite the physical and mental health implications of being overweight or obese (Syrad et al., 2014). The same study found that parents also didn’t find the BMI scale to be a credible indicator of a child’s health, because according to parents it didn’t take into consideration the child’s lifestyle. This shows that despite the implicated health risks of being over weight or obese, parents do not acknowledge body weight to be a significant risk factor to their child’s health. This is a dangerous misperception that needs to be immediately corrected. A strategy to give parents a more accurate perception of ‘overweight’ as well as education on the diverse effects that being overweight or obese has on their children, must be part of the health initiative. Failure to do so will not address the wider context of the problem
Current health initiatives
Health initiatives are currently in place across Britain to reduce sugar intake.
Public Health England compiled an evidence based report called “Sugar consumption: The evidence for action” (Public Health England., 2015) which expresses the need to drastically reduce sugar intake across the population, which even the British Dental Association stated would be reckless to ignore (BDJ Team., 2015).
Change4Life has issued a new campaign that focuses on educating parents to be “sugar smart” and even encourages parents to download the new Sugar Smart app that measures the sugar content of every day food and drink (Nhs.uk., 2016).
Action on Sugar have also proposed an evidence based, six point sugar reduction plan to David Cameron (Cameron’s Plan: A comprehensive approach to prevent obesity, 2015) and are also backing TV chef Jamie Oliver’s obesity plan too (Actiononsugar.org, 2015). Some of the actions proposed by Action on Sugar involve a 50% sugar reduction within the next five years starting with soft drinks, ceasing the promotion and all types of marketing of unhealthy food to children and adolescents and a 20% duty on all sugar sweetened soft drinks and confectionery. They also began promoting sugar awareness week between the 30thNov-6thDec (Actiononsugar.org, 2015). All health initiatives proposed involve the proposal of a sugar tax with 53% of the public being for it.
Educational behavioural strategies
In review of five educational school intervention programmes that aim to reduce sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and investigate changes in body mass, three showed long term success (Avery et al., 2014). After 12 months, one of which found the percentage of overweight and obese children decreased while the control group increased by 7.5% (Stockman., 2006). Sugar tax doesn’t address the root causes or take into context the bigger picture. Research has also suggested calorie intake has dropped but activity levels have dropped further (Prentice et al., 1995). Evidence investigating marketing strategies such as the four P’s (promotion, price, product, place) framework is shown to influence consumption and purchase of sugar (Sugar Reduction: The evidence for action Annexe 3, 2015). These same principles can be applied to the marketing of healthy foods, but need to be marketed with equal if not more vigour than the marketing strategies used to promote unhealthy foods.
Overall the dynamics of sugar consumption and its effects on the health of the population is complex. As such, this surely warrants an equal response and an approach that mirrors it’s complexity. The food industry needs to become a part of the solution and not part of the problem to shift the favour towards the goals of the initiatives. Whilst the government needs to do its part in enforcing change and aggressively working towards fulfilling the goals of the initiatives. However, reducing sugar consumption is just one step towards tackling a multi faceted problem. There are many other factors affecting the health of the public besides sugar. Significant, long term improvements in public health and reductions in dietary related diseases will ultimately be accomplished at an individual level without tactics of coercion. This change will come from parents having; realistic nutrition and bodyweight perceptions, better food awareness, practical guidance on calorie balance and portion control and education on the effects of overnutrition. This all of course needs to be followed up with parents putting knowledge into practice and implementing long term positive behaviour changes such as moderating portion sizes or increasing purchases of foods that contain natural sugars such as fruit, whilst decreasing or eliminating the purchase of foods that contain ‘free sugars’.
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Avery, A., Bostock, L. and McCullough, F. (2014). A systematic review investigating interventions that can help reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in children leading to changes in body fatness. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 28, pp.52-64.
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Nhs.uk. (2016). Let’s get Sugar Smart! Download the Change4Life Sugar Smart app for free today. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/change4life-beta/campaigns/sugar-smart/sugar-facts [Accessed 15 Mar. 2016].
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Syrad, H., Falconer, C., Cooke, L., Saxena, S., Kessel, A., Viner, R., Kinra, S., Wardle, J. and Croker, H. (2014). ‘Health and happiness is more important than weight’: a qualitative investigation of the views of parents receiving written feedback on their child’s weight as part of the National Child Measurement Programme. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 28(1), pp.47-55.