When life is too sweet

Contributing Columnist

What is your first drink of the morning? Water? Tea? Coffee? Booze? Energy drinks? Each gives very different messages to the body – with results that may last a lifetime. In the case of sugared soft drinks and milks – perhaps some artificially flavored ones – the link with diabetes and weight gain is factually too strong. For indeed, there may be times when life is truly too sweet.


Drinking In Britain

It is difficult to do long term population studies in the U.S. For one thing, Americans don’t sit still. We move around – though the economic debacle of 2008 onward has cut down our home leaving restlessness.

European populations tend to have greater sitzfleisch – the tendency to stay put. So researchers looked at Norfolk, England, and got 25,000 people to note everything they drank and when for a week – and then followed them for 11 years. Having a national health system makes such studies and the ideas they provide much easier to do use.

In the study carried out by researchers at Cambridge, the headline shocking result was this – for every added sugary drink per day, an 18% increase in adult diabetes. Drilled down, the results were a bit more interesting.

Sugared tea and coffee? A couple of lumps did not show an increase in diabetes. Artificially sweetened drinks? If you controlled for weight, no increase in diabetes. Other studies find eating artificially sweetened beverages makes people eat more – and get fatter. For many eating something sweet = increased hunger.

More interesting were the results of substitution. When people changed from sugared drinks to tea or coffee or water, diabetes risks went down appreciably. But can that realistically be accomplished?


Get Them When They’re Young

The World Health Organization has a lot to say about sugar. There are about forty years worth of studies demonstrating:

More added sugars mean greater weight.

More added sugars means greater diabetes rates.

More added sugars means higher cardiovascular disease rates.

And these are the effects of sugar alone – not just the added weight it provokes. A well known paper from the US Nurses Health Study showed increasing cardiovascular risk – in the form of non-fatal heart attacks – with increased sugar intake as the independent variable.

Things are so bad the WHO has now gone on to recommend no more than 25 grams of added sugar a day for everybody; and to consider added sugars as a potential carcinogen.

Yet changing the march of sugar is difficult. Marketing of sugar drinks to kids around the world works – they really want them. Soon the very young see sugar as a necessary ingredient to “tasty” food. Kids see thousands of ads for sugared drinks and foods – often before they can talk. Even lacking words their desire for sweet stuff can be made extremely clear. It’s no surprise you find high fructose corn syrup in children’s tylenol. You want loyal customers – the younger they’re hooked, the more you’ll sell.

In India, sugar sweetened drinks sales have gone up 10% a year for fifteen years. In Mexico, 10% of calories come from sugared drinks. The establishment of dietary preferences in childhood is very hard to change.

Different places make varied attempts to get their populations healthy. When Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York City, he tried mightily to decrease the maximum size of sugared drinks. The attempts left him ridiculed. Yet in other jurisdictions, taxes may work more easily. France taxes sugared drinks; so does Hungary. Now Mexico, with its vastly increasing diabetes risks, has done the same.

Yet getting adults to change their food habits is usually a multi-generational struggle.


 Health or Satisfaction?

Part of the problem lies in how these issues are addressed. In the U.S., at least according to the Supreme Court, money is free speech. If marketers wish to relentlessly market sugared drinks to children, it’s just the play of market forces that determines the outcome.

A fine idea, if you don’t have to pay for the results.

Too many times “free speech” becomes a rallying cry for helping the population become sicker. And we collectively pay for it – every one of us, even billionaire plutocrats domiciled offshore who never pay U. S. taxes.

For diabetes is a scourge. Added sugars make populations diabetic. That makes food a health issue – and an economic, social and political issue.

A healthy economy requires a healthy population. People don’t work well when they’re sick. More diabetics means increased national medical costs – and too many illness riddled lives.  Making sugared drinks – and processed sweetened foods – the cheapest calories in the market place (thank farm subsidies) makes the poor more likely to become ill – and remain poor. Thus marketing sugar helps provoke economic inequality – as well as physical suffering.

There are alternatives. People can drink water. It’s cheap. In many places, the tap water is effective, efficient, and good tasting. It also does not require putting billions of plastic bottles into landfills and the ocean.

Next are the great stalwarts of a sleep deprived, sugar addicted populace – tea and coffee. Both come in bewilderingly varied forms. Both appear to decrease disability, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease rates.

So healthy alternatives abound – and tens of thousands of outlets to imbibe them. Just remember to check the calorie counts – and the added sugars in those scrumptious, energizing lattes.



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