Low-fat foods are another problem. For years the Government has encouraged people to eat them. Yet many are stuffed with sugar and refined carbohydrates (including, in some cases, those same hydrogenated fats). Many low-fat fizzy drinks and other products contain high-fructose corn syrup, which has been linked to diabetes, insulin-resistance and obesity because people drink so much of it and because fructose is converted to fat quite quickly in the body. Even “no sugar” drinks contain chemical alternatives, designed to satisfy the craving for sweetness: the aspartame in Diet Coke is sweeter than natural sugar and may mimic sugar in increasing the craving for other sweet things.
In his book Fat Chance, the US paediatric endocrinologist Professor Robert Lustig argues that sugar, not fat, is the main cause of American obesity. He argues that sugar is as addictive as nicotine, because it switches on the same hormonal pathways that “reward” behaviour. Low blood sugar affects mood, concentration and the ability to inhibit impulse. Eating or drinking something sugary reverses the effect: but if the pattern is repeated for long enough it results in insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Professor Lustig believes that it is not possible for most people to quit through willpower: that has been eroded by the cycle of craving.
This strikes me as extremely plausible. It would explain why so many people trying to do the right thing by eating low-fat products are still fat. It would explain why telling some people to shape up only sends them into a spiral of comfort-eating gloom. We all know how much sugar cravings are accentuated by eating sugar. Since I had my third child I have found myself drawn to the office kiosk most days at around 4pm, staring at the chocolate muffins and no longer finding solace in a banana. I used to be very strict about this and couldn’t understand why other people caved in. But I have got into a cycle that is unstoppable unless I go cold turkey on all forms of sugar for at least two weeks. This is despite my being an educated, genetically thin person with a high metabolism.
The comparison that Professor Lustig draws between nicotine and sugar also leads me to wonder if people who quit smoking have simply turned to sugar for an alternative high. Recent research published in The British Medical Journal suggests that people gain more weight when they stop smoking than had previously been thought. It looks more and more likely that we have simply swapped one vice, nicotine, for another, obesity.
Are we destined to self-destruct? Not necessarily. It seems particularly terrible to me that small children are developing type 2 diabetes because of what their parents feed them.
That must be stopped. And not just through persuasion, but by reducing our exposure to processed foods. There is no reason for offices, schools or hospitals to contain vending machines full of fizzy drinks and chocolate, any more than there is for them to sell cigarettes. There is no reason other than profit for any food to contain trans fats or, I suspect, high-fructose corn syrup. In serving up low-fat meals and artificial sweeteners, the food industry has partly been jumping to officialdom’s tune. But if some processed foods are as addictive and dangerous as nicotine, we must come down much harder on a temptation that is afflicting the nation — and the poor — as badly as cigarettes.
More at: Fat and sugar are just as deadly as cigarettes (subscription required)