THE BLOG

Four Facts That Might Change Your Views on Sugar

19/07/2015 19:35 BST | Updated 19/07/2016 10:59 BST

As a public health professional I need to help change people's attitudes to sugar. Because if as a country we don't address our love of sweet food and drink, obesity levels will keep rising and the human and financial cost of ill health will also keep rising.

Let's start with something you already know about sugar: too much is bad for you.

You may have seen scores of media articles revealing the surprisingly high levels of sugar in popular snacks and drinks. I have too, although no matter how many times I read them, I'm still shocked at the fact that a 500ml bottle of fizzy drink can contain over 50 GRAMS of sugar and many types of yoghurt and breakfast cereals contain ¼ sugar.

But if you have a sweet tooth I need to further convince you that it's time for change, even if this change is just simple tweaks to your diet using trusted evidence-based sources of information such as the NHS Live Well website or the Change4Life campaign.

1. Sugar costs lives

Two thirds of us are overweight or obese and if current trends continue this will rise to over seven out of ten of us in the not too distant future. And in some ways we're sleepwalking into this because society is normalising obesity.

Whether it's our clothes sizes becoming more generous as we get bigger - or the fact that media articles about weight are usually illustrated by images of severely obese people - we could be forgiven for not realising that as a population, most of us need to lose some weight.

But there's no safety in numbers because being overweight or obese means increased risk of very serious life-changing and life-threatening illnesses from type-2 diabetes and heart disease to some cancers. This can also cause social or emotional harm as obese children are more likely to be bullied or absent from school.

This isn't about blaming people for being overweight. Public health professionals are working at every level whether that's promoting healthy food choices or addressing issues like the environments we live, learn and work in, which in many cases are not helping us live healthy lifestyles.

2. Sugar costs £billions

It's admittedly easy to feel detached from talk of multi billion pound Government healthcare costs, but individually we all know how much we value quick and effective care if a loved one becomes ill. Our health system has to take the strain of the obesity epidemic, and we already spend billions of pounds dealing with illnesses that could have been prevented.

Type 2 diabetes currently costs the NHS £8.8billion a year - that's almost 9% of its budget. We simply can't allow this to get much worse as it's not affordable - it will hit every area of the health services our families rely on. This isn't just my view; it's the view of the NHS England Chief Executive who is concerned that obesity will bankrupt his organisation.

3. Soft drinks are a major source of our sugar - they may be a bigger problem than you think

Of course we get sugar from sweets, cakes and chocolate but soft drinks and fruit juice are also major culprits - adults get up to a quarter of our sugar intake from them.

I'm also particularly concerned about children's consumption, they get even more of their daily sugar intake from soft drinks, as apart from the obesity risk (by the age of 4-5, one in five children are already overweight or obese) it's also shocking that one in eight three year olds have tooth decay.

If we simply swapped our sugary drinks for water, low fat milk or diet drinks and limited fruit juice to one small glass each day, this could make a big difference.

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4. There's a limit to everything

Health professionals provide advice on how much fruit and how many vegetables we should eat... how much fat... how much alcohol - and it can sometimes be hard for families to keep track. But these recommendations aren't plucked from thin air, they are based on the best evidence we have available and aim to save lives.

This week an influential group of experts advised the Government to halve the recommended intake of free sugars (that's sugars added to products or already present in honey, syrups or fruit juice, but not dairy products) to no more than 5% of our daily energy intake.

The Government have accepted the recommendation so all official advice will change. This now means that adults (and children over 11) should be consuming no more than 30 grams (7 cubes) of sugar each day. Children from age 7-10 should consume no more than 24g (6 cubes) and finally, no more than 19g for children age 4-6 (5 cubes).

It's no exaggeration to say that obesity is destroying our quality of life. This health crisis is one of the biggest issues we are facing as a country, but if we could even just reduce obesity to the levels we had back in 1993 - just below 15%, we could avoid millions of cases of chronic disease and the misery they can cause.