How did everyone cope with the great sugar panic of ’14? Did you hurl your chocolate bars overboard, hoping to borrow a few more years from the Grim Reaper? Or did you reach for a May West or a Twinkie, thinking, “In for a penny, in for a pound cake”?
I responded to the new World Health Organization guidelines on sugar intake (optimally, only 5 per cent of your daily calories) by pointing a finger at my vanilla latte and whispering “J’accuse.” Breakfast, it turns out, is one of the more lethal times of day, which is not something they teach you in university. When I think about the risks I’ve taken in life (and there have been a few), I never expected to find “blueberry muffin” at the top of the list.
Sugar is the new Public Enemy No. 1, Al Capone in a porcelain bowl. The WHO’s draft guidelines note, quite reasonably, that excess sugar consumption can mean “an unhealthy diet, weight gain and increased risk of noncommunicable diseases.” But how little per day? Less than is contained in a can of pop. Never mind all the other sugar you consume in ready meals, condiments and cookies.
Last month, a U.S. study found that those who took a quarter or more of their daily calories in sugar tripled their risk of heart disease. An advocacy group called Action on Sugar has declared that “sugar is the new tobacco.”
I like to think of this particular argument as reductio ad tobaccum, considering how many foodstuffs have recently been declared as dangerous as a pack of Player’s. A couple of years ago, a Canadian study claimed that consuming egg yolks was as lethal as smoking, and then their natural platemate, bacon, got the same designation. Now, it’s protein. A new, widely circulated study from the journal Cell Metabolism claims that middle-aged people who ate a diet high in meat and dairy substantially increased their risk of developing cancer. “We provide convincing evidence that a high-protein diet – particularly if the proteins are derived from animals – is nearly as bad as smoking for your health,” one of the researchers, biologist Valter Longo, was quoted as saying.
You may wonder, as you scrape the cream cheese from your plate and replace it with a nice mound of parsley, if everything is as dangerous as smoking, why not just give in? What on earth are you supposed to put in your body? The information is deafening, a cacophony, and often contradictory. The best advice probably comes from Michael Pollan, author of many useful books on the politics of grub, who wrote: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
But that bit of quiet, sage wisdom doesn’t really stand a chance when pitted against headlines like Could Your Sausage Kill You?! (Yes, Daily Mail, it could, if it were made out of steel, sharpened, and stuck in your eye.) If people are confused about nutrition, it’s no wonder, considering that every few years a new lethal, payload comes barrelling down the highway: Cholesterol, trans fats, acrylamides. Is salt still bad for you? (Apparently not, according to a recent article in The Globe by Dr. John Sloan.) How about saturated fats? (Rehabilitated, I think.) In the great margarine-butter cage match, butter has wrestled its oily opponent to the ground and stands triumphant. That could all be flipped over tomorrow.
The danger is that the average person throws up her hands in despair. Let’s assume we’re all generally rational guardians of our families’ health: Our kids are vaccinated, we get the flu shot every year and only occasionally do we succumb to the siren song of the cigarette or the Hickory Stick. We drink in moderation (for Torontonians, a useful benchmark is “less than the mayor”). So how do we assess the various risks to our individual health when we’re looking at a menu and trying to remember which will kill us sooner, the feta or the onion rings?
Here, it’s useful to turn to David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, at Cambridge University, who not only has the best job title in the world but also some excellent insights into this kind of decision-making. First, you divide your risk potential into acute (rock falling toward your head) and chronic (repeated abuse of BLT). As Prof. Spiegelhalter said in a TEDx lecture, “A Spam fritter, unless you choke on it, is not going to kill you on the spot, but if you keep on stuffing them down your gob year after year, it’s not going to do you any good at all.”
Similarly, public-health warnings carrying dire advice about shortened lifespans often fall on shuttered ears because people think they’d rather have pleasure now than an extra year at the end when they’re “old and dribbly.” A better way to think of health risks, he says, is to imagine your life sped up, or consumed, by poor choices – to consider that a hamburger or two cigarettes can eat a half-hour of your life. (Although, Prof. Spiegelhalter points out, so does an episode of Friends. Pick your poison.)
Would I trade a half-hour for a May West? Probably not, but I would for a steak. Or are steaks good for us again? Somebody let me know when the jury’s in.
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