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Theresa Albert (Racheal McCaig Photography)
Theresa Albert (Racheal McCaig Photography)

Sugar is the new tobacco. Here’s why Add to ...

Welcome to Health Advisor, where contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Follow us @Globe_Health.

There is a new global campaign called Action on Sugar to reduce “hidden sugars” in food by pulling together international experts in obesity and labelling sugar as “the new tobacco.” This voluntary group of scientific, academic and medical obesity experts believe that reducing the sneaky sugar hidden within foods can help battle lifestyle diseases like diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

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Knowing that there are now more obese people in the world than there are starving must motivate some change. The apple cart is well and truly upset: A predictive study published in 2008 by Harvard and MIT researchers suggests that, if we continue the current numbers trend in North America, it is believed that 100 per cent of the population will be overweight or obese by 2050.

Action on Sugar is the same group that has effectively taken action on sodium (under the name Consensus Action on Salt and Health, or CASH). By keeping the topic in the media, lobbying governments and educating the public as well as working with food producers they have turned the tide on salt. You would be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t aware of the impact of sodium on their health.

This group’s goal is a 30-per-cent reduction in added sugars in packaged foods, which they believe will reduce calorie consumption by 70 to 100 calories per day. In theory, accomplishing this would create a calorie deficit sufficient for weight loss just by improving junk foods alone.

Will this solve the problem?

There is no doubt that we need everyone at the table. Manufacturers need to do their part and media need to continue to share truthful messages, but consumers must also take on a role. What we need to watch out for is how manufacturers spin this new initiative. “Reduced sugar” could provide the same debacle as the low-fat trend that made us collectively fatter. Foods sold as “low fat” often actually contain more calories overall, since the fat was replaced with other ingredients, including – you guessed it – sugar.

Some manufacturers would have you believe that a calorie is just a calorie no matter where it came from. However, there is evidence to the contrary in that how the body processes sugar calories is much more damaging than, say, a protein calorie. The sugar contained in fruit, with its vitamins, minerals, fibre and micronutrients intact, is broken down more slowly and causes much less impact on blood sugar, as well as liver processes. Dr. Robert Lustig, an obesity expert and neuroendocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, is doing some remarkable work around this topic. His work shows that a can of soda has the same impact on the liver as a shot of alcohol. Action on Sugar is looking at all manufactured foods and not just the traditional sugar-laden cookies and cakes. This is not the panacea by any stretch, but it is a remarkable start in the march toward health.

What you can do

It is simple for an individual to reduce their own calorie intake by 70 to 100 calories per day, as this action group is suggesting. That’s merely one cookie, one double-double, one glass of wine and perhaps choosing foods that are sugar-laden less frequently. Doing so prevents you from becoming the statistic affected by what excess sugar consumption leads to: liver disease, heart disease, obesity, inflammation and diabetes.

I’m all for pulling together to solve the problem. But expecting one group to do all the heavy lifting that needs to be done won’t work. The power, as always, is in your hands.

Theresa Albert is a food-communications consultant and a registered nutritionist based in Toronto. She blogs here and you can follow her on Twitter @theresaalbert

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