Whether or not sugar is uniquely toxic is inconsequential to its role as a current public health concern. The fact is we eat way too much of it, with sugar serving for many of us as a proxy measure of our consumption of processed and restaurant foods. Sugar is also largely responsible for the "bet you can't eat just one" phenomenon that as Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Michael Moss in his fascinating expose Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us reported, is quite literally being engineered into processed foods by food bio-psychologists for their food industry employers.
We have truly become a nation hooked on the sweet stuff and addicted to dietary convenience.
For many Canadian families gone are the days of regular home cooking, and with that so too our love and respect for our kitchens. Nowadays our kitchens are assembly points that embody the food industry's practised script that mixing jars of this with boxes of that can still be called "cooking," or worse, that kitchens are simply places to store our keys and our mail.
Diet and weight-related chronic diseases are on the rise, and we have been so well and fully hoodwinked by the food industry that we're now looking to them for help. Whether it's inviting the food industry to the table in creating Canada's Food Guide, or ParticipACTION's partnership with Coca-Cola to promote sport, or the welcoming of food industry money to fund, sponsor and promote our hospitals, schools, sporting arenas, and community races, the food industry is buying the impression that they're part of the solution. Yet the one thing none of these arrangements accomplish the one thing that's needed, which is to decrease our purchase of food industry products in place of actual fresh produce. Sales of junk are rising.
Don't kid yourself, the food industry is not your friend. That's not a mean-spirited statement, it's just the truth. To follow a course of action divorced from profits and consistent instead with ethics or morals or health is a luxury denied to corporations by their fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders. Consequently the longer we wait for the food industry to "do the right thing," the longer we'll remain mired in a world where the culture of convenience is so deeply entrenched in our lives that it will continue to be normal for parents to ensure their children leave home knowing how to play soccer and hockey, but not knowing how to cook.
And don't hold your breath for government action either. While no doubt there are many interventions the government could facilitate to empower Canadians to improve their health and nutrition, given short political mandates, food industry influence and money, and the pervasive belief that personal responsibility is the only tool required for good health, politicians aren't particularly interested in nutrition and healthful living. If we want to see change, it's going to have to come from within.
Starting at home, find a way to cook and eat together more often. Consider your dietary staples and remember, if you have children, you're literally building them out of what you're putting in their mouths – are you using quality building materials? Revisit the role of daily dessert. Eliminate automated weekly takeout or restaurant meals and instead begin the tradition of home-cooked Sundays, and re-relegate restaurant or takeout meals to serve as celebratory markers for actual occasions rather than just because it's Friday. And start talking about food with your family. Not in the context of weight, but rather of nutrition, and remember you can ignore virtually all of the world's contradictory dietary advice if you're regularly cooking from fresh, whole, ingredients.
Next take the fight to your community. Take it to your schools, libraries, soccer fields, and city councillors. Praise them for their teaching, their concern, and their engagement, and then point out the contradiction between that care and their regular provision and use of junk food as a reward, a fundraising vehicle, or as an unnecessary add-on to an event. Once pointed out, the next step is to provide alternatives and to offer to help. The U.S.'s Center for Science in the Public Interest has put together a great list here.
Finally, take the fight to your province and country and the next time a politician calls you or knocks on your door, tell them that nutrition and health are extremely important to you and that you want the government to do more to ensure that its policies both promote evidence-based nutrition and protect your children (and you) from the influence of predatory food industry marketing.
And if none of this interests you, or if you're on the fence, or even if you think I'm out to a health-food lunch, do yourself a favour and go see the new movie Fed Up and see if it doesn't change your mind about why this stuff matters.
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute – dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him @YoniFreedhoff. His latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work, is a national bestseller.