The white death

    27 September 2014

    White poison; pure, white and deadly; the silent killer. These are just some of the phrases that have been used to describe the toxic and addictive substance otherwise known as sugar.

    People are simply not aware of how much sugar they are eating, and most of us do not fully recognise the devastating effect it is having on our bodies. It is the main cause of the obesity and diabetes epidemic that is plaguing Britain, where our annual sugar intake is 33.7kg per capita. That is 15.4kg higher than the global average — we are the 18th largest consumer of sugar in the world.

    Since 2011, the number of people being diagnosed with diabetes has risen by over 100,000 per year. An average of 738 new cases are diagnosed each day. Furthermore, Professor Richard Baker and his colleagues at the National Institute for Health Research recently conducted a study on ‘pre-diabetes’, a condition where the patient has much higher blood sugar than is normal, but does not classify as a diabetic. The study found that the number of people with pre-diabetes trebled to over 35 per cent between 2003 and 2011 and concluded that up to 10 per cent of these people would go on to develop type 2 diabetes.

    Many medical professionals have dismissed the pre-diabetes diagnosis as ‘meaningless’ and said it could result in unnecessary medication. But I firmly believe that these diagnoses are an effective way of enabling people to take preventative action by making lifestyle changes before it is too late. Increased awareness of this condition is crucial, and preliminary diagnoses could help us to make important headway.

    These findings also demonstrate that there is a real need to ensure that we continue to conduct research into this condition. In July 2014 the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) published draft guidelines on obesity, which proposed that the threshold for recently diagnosed type 2 diabetics considered for bariatric (or weight-loss) surgery should be lowered from those with a BMI of 35 to those with a BMI of 30. A gastric band can cost between £5,000 and £8,000 per operation, and gastric bypasses can cost up to £15,000 — a huge sum of money. Arguments in support of this type of surgery have pointed out that the cost of diabetes care and drugs is already very large, and that these operations can significantly reduce the number of new cases. However, increasing the availability of such drastic treatment will not bring about the change in dietary habits that is needed.

    Each year, 59,000 people die as a result of obesity and diabetes. It has been estimated that if the number of people with diabetes continues to rise at the current rate, in ten years’ time five million British people will have the condition. The cost of diabetes and obesity-related illnesses to the NHS is an estimated £15 billion a year, a staggering figure which health and nutrition experts involved in Action on Sugar have warned could easily rise to £50 billion. Diabetes alone takes up 10 per cent of the NHS budget and currently 80 per cent of this money is spent on treating preventable complications. While the NHS does recommend losing weight through a healthy, calorie-controlled diet with an increased amount of exercise, this message is not making enough impact.

    Since being diagnosed as a type 2 diabetic 14 years ago, I have been trying to raise awareness of the dangers of excessive sugar consumption. In May this year, I presented a 10 Minute Rule Bill to Parliament, which is intended to make it obligatory for food manufacturers to indicate the amount of sugar contained in a product in teaspoons on the packaging. This measurement is easy to visualise and could help people with and without diabetes monitor sugar intake more easily.

    There should also be more emphasis on making sugar-free products available in shops, just as there are gluten-free products. There is a campaign to persuade supermarkets to remove sweets from checkout areas, to lessen the temptation as customers go to pay, and I am pleased that some supermarkets have done so.

    While the dangers of sugar have been known for many years, regulation has been fragmented on this issue, and successive governments have demonstrated a reluctance to take decisive action. One initiative which had the potential to be very successful but has been disappointing is the Responsibility Deal. Introduced in 2011 to combat the national health crisis by reducing the public’s calorie intake, among other things, this gave retailers and food manufacturers the opportunity to sign up to the pledge to make their products healthier. But in reality, the Responsibility Deal became a convenient means for many companies to give the public the impression that they were working to make us healthier, while making very few changes.

    To be truly effective, any initiative needs to do two things. Firstly, it needs a clear action plan on sugar: currently, its emphasis is on fat and salt. Secondly, binding legislation should be introduced alongside other measures, such as clear food and drink labelling.

    It is also important that future initiatives take into consideration individual lifestyles. Research has shown, for example, that shift work can increase your risk of developing diabetes.

    Without drastic reform, the diabetes and obesity epidemic could spiral out of control. We all have a part to play in helping people to limit their sugar intake, to lead healthier lives and to reduce the risk of developing diabetes. The government should be working more closely with health-care professionals to develop stronger education campaigns to ensure that people begin to reduce their sugar intake. There is an urgent need to develop a series of initiatives which hold retailers and food and drink manufacturers to account, while simultaneously combating the wilful ignorance of many people to the dangers of this stuff.