Earlier this month WHO (the World Health Organisation) launched draft guidelines on sugar intake, recommending that added sugars comprise less than 10% of daily energy intake and that further reducing intake to 5% of energy intake (25g/day or 6 teaspoons based on around 2000 cals/day) would have additional benefits in relation to obesity and dental carries.
Really? Do they really think that reducing sugar intake will solve the obesity epidemic? Have WHO been sucked in by the “I Quit Sugar” campaign too?
I certainly don’t think so, nor do I don’t think this recommendation is expected to be considered in isolation to other dietary and lifestyle recommendations, however my concern is that this is exactly how it will be interpreted by the general population who are so readily led astray from good nutritional common sense by media hype and food industry manipulation.
The food industry and media are already all too willing to vilifying sugar as the single dietary constitute responsible for the woes of the world, to its own advantage, and consequently it’s unlikely that the general population will see the recommendation to reduce added sugar as I believe it is intended – by minimising processed foods and choosing whole foods, particularly fruits and vegetables.
We have seen similar misinterpretation and misuse of dietary recommendations before and my concern is we are set to see this happen again.
Guidelines gone wrong
In the 1950’s we saw saturated fat come into the spotlight as a potential player in poor health outcomes such as heart disease and consequently various dietary guidelines came rolling out to reduce saturated fat intake. (1) Unfortunately these guidelines didn’t achieve their expected outcome; obesity rates have continued to rise and consequently so have chronic diseases.
Does this mean the evidence against saturated fats wrong? According to the recent opinion paper by Dr James DiNicolantonio in the journal Open Heart this is the case. (2) I however cannot agree and find this type of attention grabbing, sensationalised, opinion irresponsible.
His argument is that the observational data used as the basis for these recommendations to reduce saturated fat intake back in the 1950’s was flawed, however good quality experimental data supporting the negative effect of saturated fats, particularly in comparison to polyunsaturated fats (including omega-3), remains. (3) Due to the flawed data of the 1950’s and irrespective of the consistent data over the decades, he advocates the need to stop vilifying saturated fats and start vilifying refined carbohydrates.
Vilifying a single dietary constitute, such as fat or sugar, is excessively simplistic and short sighted.
What resulted from the recommendations to reduced saturated fat and the continued popularity of ‘low fat’ diets in general, was a food industry that proved it is responsive and innovative.
We didn’t see a reduction in portion sizes of high fat products and we didn’t see consumers replace unnecessary high fat foods with additional fruits or vegetables, we simply saw “low fat” versions of equally unhealthy products fill our supermarket shelves – however obesity and chronic disease continue to rise.
It wasn’t fat after all, was it?
Simple logic tells us that if removing fat didn’t work then fat must not be the problem and something else must be – sugar, because of course the responsive food industry replaced the fat in products with sugar (and salt, but this seems to have been largely ignored by the media, probably because the before and after photos of a low sodium diet are far less exciting).
This seems to be the ‘logical’ conclusion that Dr DiNicolantonio and similarly the “I Quit Sugar” movement are trying to convince us of, which of course, can also be supported with quality data which proves that sugar is bad – in fact WHO bases its’ drafted guidelines on such findings from a high quality systematic review. (4)
Now I’m not suggesting that this research is incorrect in any way, but rather that in the hands of the media, food industry and anyone else who seizes the opportunity to cash in, this data can be taken out of context, misinterpreted and misrepresented just as it was in relation to recommendations to reduce fat.
Wait, I do have a point
The point being, that although the newly drafted WHO recommendations to reduce sugar are warranted, without some nutritional common sense from the general public (and of course some political support would also be welcomed), we are likely to see history repeat itself and a single nutritional constitute be unnecessarily vilified, again without significant impact on rates of chronic disease.
In this context, we can expect to see the already expanding “no added sugar” market continue to grow and akin an equally unhealthy, artificially sweetened, food supply continue to increase, again to little prevail.
Dr DiNicolantonio, if we are wrong about anything it is how the evidence and resulting dietary guidelines are allowed to be misinterpreted and misrepresented by the media and food industry. Instead of recommending a reduction in fat or sugar we need recommendations to displace the processed foods with additional fruits, vegetables and whole foods, but even this is short sighted and fails to recognise the vast array of influences on our health within our obesogenic environment.
My recommendation is to use some common sense, ignore the media, keep things in perspective and aim for a healthy balance in all aspects of your life.
Oh by the way, 5g of sugar per 100g or 5%, is a long standing recommendation made by Nutritionists and Dieticians.
Nikki is a PhD qualified Nutritionist and an expert in children's eating.