Nutritionist irked by medical groups’ take on sugary beverages
A full-page advertisement on 'Concerns About the Obesity Epidemic in Jamaica' published in the Sunday Gleaner of March 25 as an open letter to the Government of Jamaica by a coalition of nine medical groups supporting the proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, has drawn the concern of a registered nutritionist.
Patricia Thompson argues that the call for action by the public health officials for a national strategy against sugary beverages to address obesity is well-intentioned, but could, in fact, backfire .
Instead of focusing solely on the reduction of sugary beverages to be successful, the strategy should address behaviourial change, which would result in people consuming less calories on a whole.
"In responding to the hype on sugar and obesity, manufacturers are being urged to reformulate products to lower sugar content. What is a possible effect of this? It takes the discerning eye of this nutritionist to realise that what may seem like a benefit may
in actuality have negative repercussions," Thompson argues.
"Take our well-loved hard dough bread: the changes promoted as a reduction of 33 per cent sugar from an already-low sugar content of the original product only gives a benefit of one gram less sugar, that equates to four calories saved per slice," she said.
"In place of sugar, bakers add extra carbohydrate, but in a different form, as well as protein, resulting in an increase of 40 extra calories per slice. By the time this becomes public knowledge, the usual two slices of bread eaten for breakfast would have provided an extra 80 calories daily, resulting in increased obesity from an annual gain of eight pounds to body weight," she told The Gleaner.
"Recently, it has come out that the Government is considering imposing a tax on sugared drinks as a means of garnering revenue. Professionals in the medical and related professions have also come out in support of the measure, even referring to similar measures taken by other countries in the recent past. It should be noted that up to this point, the 'success' of the measures have not presented evidence that the tax revenue has led to sustainable programmes to reduce obesity," Thompson noted.
She continued: "Don't get me wrong, if the purpose of the tax was for the sole purpose of generating funds to employ qualified nutrition professionals, who are the ones who will bring about the real change in the obesity situation, I would support a tax on all sugared items, not just sugar-sweetened beverages. Obesity is a complex disease requiring a total change in eating behaviours."
Thompson explained that "this is similar to protein-energy-malnutrition, which was the problem years ago, and the only approach that solved it was to employ nutritionists to work with the people in the field".
The nutritionist said that "a similar approach is now needed to solve the obesity problem. Since the Government claims it has no money to employ or contract these professionals, it is right that the public be called on to pay the tax for their own obesity treatment. That way, the Government can apply the funds generated from tax to pay for the needed professional services, through which the problem will be solved. Any other use of the funds would be unacceptable."
... Tax on sweet drinks only a first step
Registered nutritionist Patricia Thompson says the well-publicised discussion of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages has indeed been of benefit to raise the awareness of the public to the dangers of overeating, but this is only the first step.
The real target should be to avoid eating too much overall, but in a balanced way to reduce obesity. Compartmentalising the diet by merely reducing sugar by itself may only be a passport to eating more sugar-reduced or sugar-free foods, she said.
"Some years ago, the target was eating less salt, but this did not reduce the incidence of high blood pressure, since the real culprit, sodium, was only added to products in other forms. Likewise, fat and fast foods have been used as the scapegoats to the obesity problem. When manufacturers reduced fat, they simply increased sugar to maintain taste and public acceptability," Thompson explained.
"The obesity solution needs a balanced approach which only qualified nutrition professionals can provide. A more comprehensive approach is needed to allow the population to enjoy their local foods while still reducing salt, sugar, fat and calorie intake in their diet," she added.