Will a tax on sugar cure obesity?

Thirty-five years ago I warned readers about the dangers of excessive sugar consumption and labelled sugar the ‘white devil.’ The sugar industry was not amused, and complained to the College of Physicians and Surgeons that I should be disciplined. I won, after a trying, difficult battle. How things change!

Five countries currently have a sugar tax. Now the British are debating the merits of a 20% tax on high sugar products to help fight the epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

Why this change of heart? Dr. Simon Capewell, UK vice-president of health policy, says, “Public opinion on a sugar tax is shifting. The majority of parents are angry that their children are being made fat.” He adds, “It’s a matter of when, not if it’s going to happen.”

Dr. John Yudkin, professor of physiology at London University, reported in 1972 that sugar (sucrose) is dangerous as well as sweet. He showed as the intake of sugar increased worldwide, so did the number of people suffering from heart disease.

In another experiment, prisoners in a locked ward were given different diets with and without sucrose. This proved that whenever sucrose was added, it increased the level of blood cholesterol. Can you imagine the hue and cry of libertarians if this experiment were tried today!

The sugar bowl is not the main problem. It’s the hidden sugar in so many products. For instance, the publication Consumer Reports on Health says, “Who would think that one slice of whole wheat bread would contain almost one teaspoon of sugar?” It adds that food companies toss added sugar into almost 75% of packaged foods, including nutritious sounding names such as instant oatmeal.

So can you lose weight by decreasing the amount of dietary sugar? In one study, 43 obese children ate the same amount of calories, but decreased added sugars from 28% of their daily calories to 10% for nine days. There was no change in weight, but their cholesterol, triglyceride, fasting blood sugar and insulin levels all dropped. Their weight remained the same, as the amount of calories did not change. No one should ever forget the word ‘calorie’.

But does a tax on sugary drinks guarantee less obesity and Type 2 diabetes? According to a Mexican study, a tax had no effect. Why? It helped to decrease consumption of sugary drinks, but you may have guessed it, Mexicans simply switched to other products, ending up with the same number of calories. A lose/ lose experiment.

I’m no friend of the sugar industry. Soft drinks are really liquid candy. But in all fairness to it, obesity results from too many calories in all types of food. I see this when I travel to the U.S. and see restaurants with signs advertising ‘All you can eat’.

My patients must have become tired of me saying, “Buy a bathroom scale and step on it every day.” Of course this is not the be-all-and-end-all solution to obesity. But you never have to face the surprise that you’ve gained 40lbs!

One thing is certain. You need to be a nutritionist to understand the sugar labels on food products. But it would help if labels showed what we all understand, what a teaspoon of sugar looks like.

Maybe some people would then think twice about consuming too much sugar when a cola can contains a picture of 9 tsp. of sugar, a chocolate bar (6 tsp.), a bowl of raisin bran or frosty flakes (9 tsp.), sponge cake (8 tsp.), and even a banana (4 tsp.)

The fact is that, unless you have been living on Mars, you don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that rich desserts, cookies and other goodies like ice cream contain large amounts of sugar. And unless you learn to say ‘no’ more often than you say ‘yes’, you will never beat obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

The sad news is that calories do count. In case you believe that by exercising, you can say ‘yes’ more often than ‘no’, you’ll find calories always win. It will happen whether there is a sugar tax or not.

Remember I’m not your doctor so this column is not meant to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure disease, and is only for informational purposes. So always consult with your doctor.

See the web site www.docgiff.com. For comments, info@docgiff.com.

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