THE BLOG

Will the Sugar Tax Stop Childhood Obesity?

22/03/2016 09:47 GMT | Updated 22/03/2017 09:12 GMT

With the release of last week's budget, it seems everyone is talking about the sugar tax. Over the last few days I've read several opinions on whether this is a good idea and ultimately, whether it will help to halt the obesity crisis - the million dollar question!

The Government's new tax on sugary drinks will be split into two bands: the first for total sugar above 5g per 100ml, and the second for when total sugar exceeds 8g per 100ml. To give you some context, Coca Cola contains 10.6g of sugar per 100ml, while typical orange juice has 8g.

The tax won't be placed on pure fruit juices or milk based drinks. But in an effort to drive down childhood obesity, is this the right approach?

There's no denying it: our consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) has risen in recent decades, and there is evidence to suggest that this increase is having an impact on obesity and the rising number of cases of type 2 diabetes. But sugary drinks alone are not the root of the problem.

The number of articles, statements and scientific studies linking sugary drinks to weight gain makes it easy to point the finger, and come to the conclusion that sugary drinks should be eliminated. In theory, this makes a lot of sense, but when you compare the theoretical data with the observed data, you can see that the actual weight gain associated with sugary drinks is in fact ten times less than was originally theorized, and actually, less than 2% of weight gain can be attributed to drinking sugary drinks!

It's only in the last ten years or so that sugar has been demonized for our increasing waistlines. Interestingly, our total consumption of sugar in the UK has actually fallen by 20 per cent in the last 30 years! In fact, it is our eating patterns as a whole that are to blame. If you look at the most recent data on calorie consumption, we are both eating more (approximately 445 calories more) but also moving less than we were 40 years ago.

Interestingly out of the 445 extra calories we're now consuming, less than 10 percent are from sweeteners/sugar; that's only 45 calories! The remaining calories can be blamed on our increased consumption of refined grains such as french fries, potatoes, crisps and baked goods, along with fats and oils.

Now, placing a tax on sugary drinks does indicate that the Government are realizing the extent of the obesity crisis and starting to do something about it. But let's be honest, the price isn't going to increase so dramatically that it will force those who buy them to find a healthier alternative. In fact, a lot of the 'healthier' alternatives are probably going to have just the same impact (if not worse!) than if you were to choose a sugary drink.

Milkshakes, flavoured waters and off-the-shelf cold coffees can contain nearly as much sugar, if not more, than your average can of soda and they tend to be higher in calories! In fact, if you compare a standard 471ml bottle of chocolate milkshake to a can of coke you'll find the milkshake has an extra 203 calories. Yet these drinks are expect from the tax!

If we are serious about tackling childhood obesity, then we must not be naive enough as to think that pushing up the cost of fizzy drinks is going to have a noticeable impact. It is more important to focus on the issue of over-eating in general, and reducing our consumption of delicious but unhealthy foods such as refined grains and fatty foods.

It's also crucially important that we remain active and encourage our children to put the iPad down, get up off the sofa and out into the fresh air. Only then do I believe we'll stand a fighting chance of tackling the obesity crisis.

A few possible solutions:

Drink sugar free alternatives: Now I can understand your immediate reaction to this - "diet drinks cause cancer!" - Well, we now know from the science that unless you're drinking close to 5 litres of diet soda a day or you're born with a rare inherited disease (phenylketonuria) you needn't worry. In fact, there's emerging evidence to show diet drinks may actually reduce the risk of obesity and weight gain, increasing satiety and reducing food intake. You can read our blog post on sweeteners and diet soda here.

Reducing screen time: The amount of time kids (8-18 year olds) are exposed to electronic devices or lit screens has increased by almost 2 1/4 hours from its level 5 years ago, taking the average amount of time children are exposed to electronic devices to nearly 8 hours per day! For at least some of that time, they could be being active.

Get kids moving more: The Department of Health recommends at least 1 hour of moderate to vigorous exercise per day, of which only 24 percent of girls and 32 percent of boys (among 2-15 year olds) in England are achieving. One benefit of taxing fizzy drinks is that the money raised will be going towards sport equipment for schools, which should help encourage kids to be more active on a daily basis.

Any move to tackle the obesity crisis must be praised, but the issue is much more deeply rooted in our lifestyles than what we drink. Any serious attempt to tackle the crisis must face up to this fact, and make real efforts to encourage change.