Spectator Health

Why lobbying against sugar misses the point

15 July 2014

3:57 PM

15 July 2014

3:57 PM

Everybody knows that obesity is a massive problem. According to the World Health Organisation, it is now linked to more deaths than malnutrition and starvation. And thanks to a remarkable lobbying effort in recent years, we all know the culprit – sugar.

The science against sugar stacks up pretty well. The American endocrinologist Dr Robert Lustig has written and lectured extensively on how fructose (one half of table sugar) contributes to obesity and poor metabolic health, likening it to an addictive drug which should be restricted for sale. His YouTube lecture has been viewed over 4.8 million times. The UK lobby group Action on Sugar have been working hard to reduce the amount of sugar added to processed foods and beverages. At the same time, recent media led dietary wisdom is recommending the Mediterranean diet rich in oils, legumes, fruit and vegetables and low on meat and added sugars.

But the ‘war on sugar’ misses the point. The problem has never been related to a single micronutrient, such as fat, salt or sugar. We need all these things in proportion. Despite problems with recommending the diet of a totally different food culture being somewhat prescriptive and of little value, the Mediterranean diet probably does offer some long-term health benefits. But that is probably because it is a diet rooted in eating fresh and wholesome food. The problem with the contemporary British diet is the availability and popularity of highly processed foodstuffs.


Processed food aims to get the cheapest possible food with the longest possible shelf life delivered to you in the most palatable way possible. This means appealing to basic tastes for fat, salt and sugar. Often in the processing, nutritional quality is lost and calories are gained. It stands to reason that food that is nutritious to humans is also nutritious to bacteria and fungus, and will go rotten more quickly.

Robert Lustig, Michael Pollan, Jamie Oliver, Sarah Boseley and numerous more food writers, bloggers and scientists all seem to be sending the same message. Eat real food. Michael Pollan goes as far as to describe highly processed food as ‘edible food like substances’. Looking at squeezy fruit flavoured tubes we give to our children as one of their five-a-day, it is not hard to understand why.

As a culture we seem to have lost faith in our ability to cook, and many children grow to adulthood without the basic skills in food preparation that would allow them to do more than heat up a frozen pizza. There has been an explosion in convenience food, from fried chicken at the school gate to the confectionary at high street fashion retailers. It is unavoidable, and a visit to a pound shop leaves no questions as to why poverty and obesity can be so easily linked.

The future is in prevention rather than treatment. That will have to come alongside a re-education of the public away from processed food and towards cooking meals from fresh ingredients. This sounds easy, but we are several generations down the line from when cooking skills were essential and in some families these skills will have been lost altogether. This means part of the answer lies in pragmatic education before lifestyles lead to problems.

This is something the government has realised and in the wake of the School Food Plan, from September 2014 practical cookery and food education will be built into the curriculum from age 5 to 14. This is a huge commitment and is bound to be beset my teething problems, but it will benefit our children’s futures – far more than society’s voguish preoccupation with the evil of sugar.

Steven Vates is currently a final year medical student at Warwick Medical School, and hopes to train in psychiatry after graduating in 2015. Prior to this he practised as a registered nurse in critical care.

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Show comments
  • eclair

    A doctor once informed me, rather obviously I thought, that if what goes in is more than what is used, then the problem is essentially too much food, even if intake of calories has gone down. Some of us are exercise fiends, but nevertheless, our daily lives are largely inactive and dependant on cars and technology. Simply, eating less and doing more ALL the time, not just at the gym or the pool a couple of times a week and BINGO, weight will balance out.

  • DaveyT

    I’d go further, and say the obesity ‘epidemic’ can’t be blamed on any one ingredient or even food in general, but on general lack of physical exertion. Show me an obese person, and I’ll show you someone who does no, or negligible physical exercise.Train for a marathon or triathlon and you’ll find you can eat whatever you like and not gain weight. But, you don’t have to go to those lengths – all that’s needed is something that doubles your heart rate for 15-30 minutes a day, and that doesn’t include waddling once around the park with your equally obese pooch for 10 minutes.
    30/40 years ago, people ate an ‘English’ breakfast and meat and 2 veg with lots of spuds every day as a routine, but weren’t generally as overweight then as now, when these meals hardly ever happen. The fact that overweight people also eat a lot of junk food is irrelevant as the reason they do so is because sourcing fresh ingredients and home cooking would take them away from the sofa for too long. We’ve become a nation of slobs, and the culture begins when people are very young – children need to be taught the importance of exercise and encouraged to do sport at a young age, both at school and at home.

  • Yorkieeye

    Not a chance, the supermarkets et al make far too much money from trash food.

  • Simon Cooke

    No this is not the case. Total calorie intake has fallen significantly since the 1970s yet we are, on average, fatter. and the drop in consumption is across every category of food (excepting fresh fruit & vegetables). So to single out processed foods is to completely miss the point.

    SF writer Neal Stevenson described in his collection of short piece, ‘Some Remarks’ how sitting at a computer all day was unhealthy (and how he’d switched to writing while on a treadmill). The welcome advance of labour-saving devices and the collapse of communications into one small device means that our need to move is reduced. Yet we still consume the calories we needed for a less sedentary life.

    There is no truth to the line – “processed foods are bad, we should all learn to cook from fresh…etc.” Yet people repeat it time and time again, choosing to ignore the evidence by focusing only on input and not on output (how many calories we ingest compared to how many calories we use).

    There is a problem with obesity (although it is overstated) – perhaps 3-5% of the population is dangerously overweight. Which when you think about it is about 1 in 20 folk walking past your window. However, the approach to the problem these people face is to deal directly with them rather than through intrusive all population measures such as extra taxes or limitations.

  • Random Dude

    Actually umm NOOO! – we don’t need sugar at all.