Calories more important than sugar in obesity debate

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

Action on calories more effective than pressure to reduce sugar, claimed experts
Action on calories more effective than pressure to reduce sugar, claimed experts
Reducing calories and portion sizes would play a more important role in curbing obesity than putting pressure on manufacturers to cut sugar in their products, according to an expert in food science.

Commenting on research by Oxford University academics – which found that thousands of obesity-related illnesses could be prevented if manufacturers met the Government’s sugar reduction targets – Institute of Food Science & Technology fellow Dr John Fry said that translating sugar reduction into calories savings, to calculate the effect on weight change in the report, meant the issue wasn’t purely focused on sugar.

“The same calorie reduction achieved by other means (such as eating marginally less) would have similar benefit using this model,”​ said Fry.

“The actual calorie savings are very small – 25kcal/day for 4- to 18-year olds, less for adults. That's roughly one/one-and-a-half teaspoons of sugar a day. The study also assumes that consumers don't compensate for lower sugar contents, for example by eating larger portions or adding their own sugar.”

While the health benefits in the report looked impressive, they were measured over a period of 10 years and represented a very small reduction in obesity.

“It does show that small changes in energy intake can have significant health benefits, but whether a huge industry effort to reduce sugar is the right way to achieve this is another question,” ​Fry added.

‘95% would still be obese’

If all the sugar reduction targets are achieved, this study suggests that nearly 95% of the obese population would still be obese. That does not mean sugar reduction is not worthwhile, but it does show that more drastic action on the diet as a whole is going to be needed.”

The study, Estimating the potential impact of the UK government’s sugar reduction programme on child and adult health​, found that the programme could reduce the proportion of obese children by 5.5% in those aged 4–10, by 2.2% in those aged 11–18, and by 5.5% in adults.

It also found that the resulting reduction of calorie intake in adults could lead to 155,000 fewer cases of diabetes, 3,500 fewer cases of cardiovascular disease, 5,800 fewer cases of colorectal cancer, and a total NHS cost saving of £286m over 10 years.

However, manufacturers needed to meet sugar reduction goals in their entirety to see any of these health benefits, the report warned.

“These findings imply that the sugar reduction programme could be an effective means of reducing obesity-related illness and costs, although targets must be met,”​ it claimed.

“As the programme targets child health through foods that children tend to consume, there could be another opportunity to target adult health and diet through foods that are more consumed by adults.”

Soft drinks industry levy

National Obesity Forum spokesman Tam Fry said the research was “negligent” ​to omit the impact of the soft drinks industry levy into its model and called for more pressure to be placed on manufacturers to meet goals.

“As is well known, the levy spurred industry dramatically to reduce sugar content and, although it's easier to take sugar out of drinks, similar ‘mandatory’ levies need to be addressed to kick the food industry into action,”​ said Fry.

“The Canadian professor, Annalijn Conklin, writing the accompanying BMJ Editorial, had it right when stating that fiscal tools and hard regulation were required to improve public health.”

Responding to the report, Public Health England said: “Obesity is one of the biggest threats to public health and is fuelled by over-consumption, including of too much sugar.

“While there have been some positive steps everyone – the public, the Government and most importantly the wider food industry – has a crucial role to play in tackling childhood obesity head-on.”

Meanwhile, consumer confusion on what can legally be defined as sugar in the UK has called into question the legitimacy of the debate over its impact on obesity and its demonisation, industry experts have claimed.

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