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.