Health messages particularly when it comes to eating are confusing to many people. It seems every week some food is linked to cancer and the next week is linked to reducing cancer.
This is not your imagination.
American researchers looked at studies on the first 50 ingredients in randomly selected cookbook recipes. They found some 264 studies on 40 of these ingredients. Roughly half showed an increased risk of cancer and half a decreased risk.
Only a few such as onions, carrots and tea showed a consistently lower risk. The same applied to higher risk with sugar and bacon being consistent.
No wonder we switch off. It is also studies, which influence dietary guidelines.
Last month new Australian dietary guidelines were released. In most respects there was nothing really new about them. However for the first time there was reference to the consumption of sugar.
One of my hobby horses over the last few years has been the fixation of health authorities on fats in the diet and obesity measured by the body mass index(BMI). I have contended that the push for low fat diets over the last 30 years has coincided with a rise in obesity. And furthermore that when fats are removed from food it is replaced with fillers and sugar!
A glance at the label of full fat and low fat version of the same food will show a slightly lower number of calories in the low fat version but it will also have higher sugar content. Foods can get health ticks or other endorsements for being low fat even if high in sugar.
A major study released this week has added substantial weight to the idea that added sugar in our diet, not fats are the biggest health problem. The study tracked rates of diabetes in 175 countries over a decade.
It found that increased sugar intake was related to increased rates of diabetes independent of weight! The study controlled for obesity, age, calorie intake and a host of other socio-demographic factors.
Most importantly it satisfied the criteria of Austin Bradford-Hill, a statistician who 50 years ago set out what was required before “linkage” could be reasonably called “causation”.
It was shown that on;
i) Dose – the more sugar available the greater the prevalence of diabetes.
ii) Duration – if sugar is available for longer there is increased diabetes.
iii) Direction – diabetes decreases with less sugar and increases with more.
iv) Precedence – diabetics don’t start consuming more sugar; people consuming more sugar are more likely to get diabetes.
There is a clear correlation between sugar consumption and diabetes.
Rob Lustig (one of the study authors) told the New York Times “you could not enact a real world study that would be more conclusive than this one.” The level of causation established is comparable to that of smoking and lung cancer
So what does this mean?
It means that most of what we have been told about fats, weight, obesity and diet is wrong. The problem is not fats in the diet but excess sugar. The proliferation of high sugar low fat foods have contributed to the increase in obesity and diabetes we have seen over the last 30 years.
Indeed just last week another major study showed that following a Mediterranean diet (which is not low fat) was correlated with lower rates of stroke and heart attack but most significantly – longer life.
Health authorities will be slow to act on this. They will not want to admit they were wrong. Yet they also have a choice. They can remain part of the problem or they can become part of the solution.
And what should you be doing regards this. As I have written many times eat real food. Minimize processed and packaged food. Eat full fat foods but just not that much of them. Beware of foods labeled low fat. Minimize soft drinks (a can has about 12 teaspoons of sugar).
If, like me, you have a sweet tooth then you can still enjoy some sugar. You can have a piece of cake or some ice cream. Simply limit how much and how often. Treats are just that – treats. That is not the same as lots everyday.
There is a lot of pride and dollars tied up in the low fat movement. Expect resistance to this major study and attempts to discredit it. It is fascinating how people who claim to be scientific are anything but when their beliefs are challenged.
These are indeed interesting times.