Sunday 22 June 2014

The irresponsibility of Action on Sugar

More free publicity for the tiny, extremist group Action on Sugar and their inept front man Aseem Malhotra...

Health group calls for 'sugar tax' to cut child obesity

A "sugar tax" should be introduced by the UK government to help curb obesity in childhood, a campaign group says.

Action on Sugar has produced a seven-point plan to discourage children from consuming foods and soft drinks with high levels of added sugar...

The seven proposed measures are:

- Reduce added sugars in food by 40% by 2020

- Ban all forms of targeted marketing of ultra-processed, unhealthy foods and drinks to children

- Disassociate physical activity with obesity by banning junk food sports sponsorships

- Reduce fat by 15% in ultra-processed foods by 2020

- Limit the availability of ultra-processed foods and sweetened soft drinks as well as reducing portion sizes

- Introduce a sugar tax to incentivise healthier food

The scholars amongst you will notice that there are only six points in this seven point plan, which is good indicator of how Action on Sugar handles data.

I've written about Denmark's fat tax fiasco at length and there are clear lessons for anyone thinking about bringing in a sugar tax. The other policy ideas are also contemptible, but I'd like to focus on one aspect which is particularly disgraceful for a group that claims to be interested in health.

Regular readers will know that Malhotra is either a shameless liar or amazingly stupid. He is on usual form today, saying that it is "really quite shameful that the food industry continues to spend billions in junk food advertising targeting children"—this is rather unlikely considering the the UK's entire advertising spend is £14 billion and there are strict rules on 'junk food' advertising, particularly with regards to children.

Worse than this is his ongoing attempt to convince people that physical inactivity doesn't matter.

"It's time to bust the myth of physical activity and obesity and dissociate junk food and sport," he added.

Malhotra wants to absolve people from responsibility by denying that physical inactivity is a large part of the obesity problem so that he can blame Big Food and bring in stupid, ineffective measures like banning advertising. He does so despite the fact that the World Health Organisation says that physical inactivity is the world's fourth biggest killer, and despite the obvious fact that burning off calories is a very good way of staying fit, slim and healthy.

The simple fact is that the rise in obesity has been primarily caused by a reduction in physical activity, not a rise in calorie consumption. Previous generations consumed more calories but were not obese because they were more physically active, particularly at work. A typical Victorian worker consumed many more calories (including lots of sugar and fat), but burnt them off. The big change in the last few decades has been the rise of sedentary working conditions for the masses.

As the British Heart Foundation notes:

Overall intake of calories, fat and saturated fat has decreased since the 1970s. This trend is accompanied by a decrease in sugar and salt intake, and an increase in fibre and fruit and vegetable intake.

I've put that in bold because it should be read, re-read and memorised by anyone claiming to understand the causes of obesity. The BHF has an excellent compilation of statistics which show some important trends. I don't have time to turn them into graphs right now, but I recommend downloading it and perusing it (particularly page 125). It shows quite clearly that consumption of the food products that are most commonly blamed for obesity having been in decline for decades.

The importance of physical activity is not a "myth". Its decline over the decades is the primary cause of rising obesity. The correct response to this social change is to exercise more or consume fewer calories (or preferably both). It is utterly negligent to tell people that physical activity doesn't matter and yet this is exactly what Malhotra—who is a cardiologist, for God's sake—repeatedly tells people in so many words. It is appalling advice for a doctor to give. The man should be struck off.


TonyC said...

"A typical Victorian worker consumed many more calories (including lots of sugar and salt)"

Salt, as far as I know, is calorie free. Perhaps you meant "sugar and fat'?

Anonymous said...

Christopher, I've read and enjoyed books of yours, and I usually agree 100% with your blog entries.

You should read Gary Taubes' 'Good Calories, Bad Calories' or his follow up 'Why we get fat..'. That would make it clear to you that obesity isn't caused by lack of exercise and can't be cured by extra exercise.

I completely agree that these piffling organizations that want to limit what can be sold to kids are wrong and indefensible. The best thing is to give people decent information and make them realize they're responsible for their own choices.

Christopher Snowdon said...

TonyC, you're right, that's what I meant. I will amend.

Anon, I don't agree with the 'a calorie is not a calorie' crowd. A calorie is a measure of energy. Saying a calorie from sugar is different to a calorie - in terms of obesity - is like saying a pound of feathers weighs more than a pound of gold.

Ian Davis said...

Well, yes a calorie is a calorie but that's beside the point because we're not talking about pure energy here. Instead the things we eat are metabolised into chemicals that store the calories. Taubes book suggests that some foods are metabolised to chemicals that the body can readily access for normal muscle use, but others end up in a form that is preferred by the processes that lay down fat in the body. Sugars are preferentially turned into fat rather than being used to fuel cells, which keeps people feeling hungry so they continue to eat more than they ought to (a lot more if they keep trying to satiate that hunger with sugars).

Regardless, it's entirely up the the indvidual whether they want to stuff themselves with sugar or not and we don't need enforcement of behaviour that should be entirely voluntary.

sqlblues said...

Although I agree that a sugar tax is wholly wrong I don't agree with your assertion about calories. The accessibility and conversion of food calories is insanely complicated and shouldn't be trivialised. As a nation we are taught no self discipline, nothing about food, live sedentary lives and are so incompetent that we cannot even recognise that we have a problem.

Rebecca Taylor said...

A healthy weight is calories in and calories out. I was in Japan recently where although people have got fatter (I never saw fat children in Japan when I first went there in the mid 90s), they remain slimmer than in comparably wealthy countries.

Part of the reason is that the traditional Japanese diet (the home cooked fish, rice & vegetables, not tempura/fried chicken/fluffy sweet white bread) is healthy, but also, cities and even most towns are designed in a way that they can be accessed without a car, meaning many more people walk or cycle as part of their commute (often combined with public transport) or to undertake daily tasks such as going to the supermarket or the post office.

A friend in Tokyo "doesn't exercise" ie do sport, but walking her son from home to school, then walking to the train station and to her office at the other end of her commute and repeating it in the evening means she easily walks for an hour each day. So despite being a working mother in her 40s with two primary school aged kids, she remains slim.

And just in case anyone thinks it's all in the genes; my friend managed to gain weight in her 20s when a student in Europe, as she ate too much cake and didn't walk as much as she did in Japan.

Junican said...

I have always thought that exercise is a way of 'keeping fit'. It exercises the muscles and thus keeps them 'fit for purpose'. It has little to do with size - witness sumo wrestlers and weight lifters.
Some people put weight on easily and others do not. There is no such thing as 'the standard human being', which is a phenomenon which all the health zealots promote. Some people should watch how much they eat, if they do not want to get fat. It really is as simple as that.
It is in the interests of the "New World Order" to promote 'totalitarianism' (one size fits all). By doing so, they can find 'choke points' upon which they can act, and get someone else to pay the costs of enforcement. Thus, tobacco companies pay the cost of collecting tobacco duty and breweries pay the cost of collecting alcohol duties. Ultimately, of course, consumers pay those costs.
'Action on Sugar' want the Government to apply the same 'one size fits all' template and thus create a 'choke point'. Government tends to like that because it is a way to increase taxes with only minor costs to the Government.
Health becomes Politics which becomes Taxes.

Dr Evil said...

Doesn't the idiot author of this anti sugar crusade realise that in some foods sugar is used as a humectant to reduce the water activity to help preserve the food? That's how jams and marmalades actually work. If you seriously reduce the sugar you will destabilise the product requiring loads more pectin, sorbate and anti bacterial agents too.

John said...

" Saying a calorie from sugar is different to a calorie - in terms of obesity - is like saying a pound of feathers weighs more than a pound of gold."

Sorry but this just shows that you simply don't understand the argument that's being presented. Nobody is suggesting or even implying that the 2nd law of thermodynamics is being suspended, but simply that cause and effect are being turned on their head. For example, when kids grow taller and bigger as they get older, they eat more. If they didn't take on more calories than they expended they simply couldn't grow. Nobody thinks that they grow BECAUSE they eat more, they eat more BECAUSE they get bigger. There are other factors (growth hormones) which make it inevitable. Growth can be stunted a bit (like north korea) but not stopped completely. The point is that too much sugar and carbs cause a similar opposite effect with fat accumulation. If the body's mechanisms for burning fat are switched off and the mechanisms for storing fat are sent into overdrive as a side effect of having a blood sugar level (and as a consequence insulin) consistently through the roof then people are going to get fat. Cutting calories and exercise are going to work as well as trying to make someone into a dwarf by starving them throughout childhood.
The cruelest, stupidest and most counter-productively unhealthy food fad ever is "counting calories".
I'm not fat and i don't find it even slightly challenging to stay slim, despite hardly ever doing any exercise (i work at home, most sat down). If i ate sugar and carbs for every meal i'd find it virtually impossible.