Suzanne Soares-Wynter | Don't turn a blind eye to liquid sugar
When was the last time you went back for a few more spoonfuls of your favourite dish or decided to finish the plate, even though you already had enough? But how many glasses of the fruit punch did you drink, or continued to drink, long after you felt full?
Generally speaking, once the stomach is full, the brain sends a signal indicating that moment of fullness or satiety, and for the most part, we stop eating. And yes, for some of us the signal may have to speak a little louder or scream, but eventually, the message gets through: "STOP! Put the fork down."
For beverages, it's not the same, since there is little or no fibre and we can consume relatively larger amounts of liquid, regardless of calories. Have you ever considered how many sugary drinks you have in a day? Isn't it more likely that eating two to three bananas would be more filling than the equivalent number of calories in a bottle of soda? The difference here is that most sugary drinks are laden with calories from added sugar and have little or no other nutrient value.
The dependence on sugary drinks, rather than water, for quenching our thirst is a major factor why some of us continue to gain weight and increase our risk of developing health issues.
A single serving of most sugary drinks available at retail will often have more than the recommended daily limit for added sugars. (Recommended daily limit is six to nine teaspoons of added sugar for women and men, respectively.)
Greater nutritional value
Raw fruits, on the other hand, although having relatively high amounts of free sugars, have considerably greater nutritional value because of the high fibre content and natural vitamins and minerals. What about starchy produce and whole grains (e.g., yam, breadfruit, brown rice), since these will eventually break down to sugars in the body? It is important to limit the amounts consumed by reducing portion sizes, but these are very high in fibre and far more nutritious than sugary drinks.
These comparisons highlight why all calories are not created equal. While sugary drinks are not the only unhealthy product at the table, they do not provide the same feeling of fullness (or healthy nutrients) as solid foods with similar calories. This means it is easy to continue drinking another, and another, sugary drink long after you have reached the maximum sugar intake for the day.
Why is this a problem? Consuming more calories beyond what we need to maintain a stable weight will cause us to store excess body fat or become overweight or obese. These are key risk factors for many of the chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) affecting adults. Sugary drinks can also cause tooth decay and cavities, the biggest NCD affecting children. The high sugar content of many sugary drinks can cause the body to absorb sugar more quickly than the liver can process.
Over the long term, this can lead to fatty liver disease and an increased risk for diabetes and other diseases. There is no simpler way to say it, regardless of how tasty you think sugary drinks are, they provide little or no benefits to your health.
There is a reason why leading international health organisa-tions like the World Health Organization and Pan American Health Organization have sounded the alarm and recommended major reductions in sugar consumption globally. Drinking just one sugary drink a day increases the likelihood of being overweight by 27 per cent for adults and 52 per cent for children.
Jamaica is no different. The recent 2016-2017 Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey found that more than half of Jamaicans are overweight. This means that every second person you meet today could be overweight. Our children are in serious danger from too much sugar as well.
The Global School-based Student Health Survey found that between 2010 and 2017, there was a sharp increase in childhood obesity, with the rate in boys almost doubling and rate for girls increasing by 47 per cent. The same survey reported that two-thirds of our teenagers aged 13-17 were at risk of overweight just from consuming one or more carbonated soft drinks every day.
This paints a frightening future for Jamaica. After all, obesity-related diseases don't just impact our health, it also takes a significant toll on our economy. Models estimate that NCDs will reduce Jamaica's GDP by US$18.45 billion between 2015 and 2030. Given our risk of natural disasters and other unexpected expenditures, can we afford that?
In tackling our high rates of obesity and the impact on national growth, we must first understand that it is a complex disease requiring a multifaceted approach to intervention. However, to turn the tide, we must prioritise creating a healthy food environment, where high-fat, energy-dense and, yes, sugar-laden drinks are not the default option.
Given the fact that most consumers are only recently aware of the dangers of drinking sugary drinks, we must continue to empower consumers to make healthy eating choices.
Beyond taking individual responsibility, this also requires setting clear regulatory guidelines and fiscal policies. Examples of these include placing on the front of packages warning labels on foods, showing consumers which ones are high in fat, sugar or salt; raising the prices of unhealthy sugary drinks; and restricting the marketing, sale and provision to children.
As an added deterrent, increasing the price substantially will encourage consumers to be more selective in redirecting their food dollar towards more healthful foods. Calling for a sugar tax is one such option that could have positive impacts on the economy and our nation's health in the long run.
We note that the Government has taken action to stave off more deaths and prevent a full-scale public health crisis. Starting in January 2019, schoolchildren will have access to healthier drink and food choices in the place they spend the majority of their days.
The obesity crisis is already a major killer of Jamaicans. By first targeting sugary drinks, we have taken a giant step in curbing a single high-risk item in our diet, as it serves no tangible health benefit. We must push further and set the required framework for improving health for all by setting key fiscal policies.
A tax on sugary drinks is a good place to start, as it is proven to decrease the consumption of sugary drinks.
- Suzanne Soares-Wynter is a clinical nutritionist at the Caribbean Institute for Health Research at The University of the West Indies.
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