Children are manifesting increased rates of adult diseases like hypertension or high triglycerides. And they are getting diseases that used to be unheard of in children, like Type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease.
So why is this happening?
Everyone assumes this is the result of the obesity epidemic – too many calories in, too few out. Children and adults are getting fat, so they’re getting sick. And it is generally assumed that no one specific food causes it, because “a calorie is a calorie”.
I’ve been studying the role that sugar plays in contributing to chronic disease for years, and my research group at the University of California, San Francisco has just published research in the journal Obesity that challenges this assumption. If calories come from sugar, they just aren’t the same.
Watch: How to have a healthy holiday this year. (Post continues after video.)
Diabetes is increasing faster than obesity.
It’s clear that the cause of rising rates of health conditions like Type 2 diabetes isn’t as simple as people just eating too many calories.
Obesity is increasing globally at one per cent per year, while diabetes is increasing globally at four per cent per year. If diabetes were just a subset of obesity, how can you explain its more rapid increase?
And certain countries are obese without being diabetic (such as Iceland, Mongolia and Micronesia), while other countries are diabetic without being obese (India, Pakistan and China, for instance). Twelve per cent of people in China have diabetes, but the obesity rate is much lower. The US is the fattest nation on Earth and our diabetes prevalence is 9.3 per cent.
While 80 per cent of the obese population in the US is metabolically ill (meaning they have conditions like diabetes, hypertension, lipid problems and heart disease), 20 per cent is not. Conversely, 40 per cent of the normal weight population has metabolic syndrome.
If normal weight people have these conditions, how then are they related to obesity? Indeed, we now know that obesity is a marker rather than a cause for these diseases.
Epidemiological studies have found a correlation between added sugar consumption and health conditions like cardiovascular disease. So could cutting excess sugar out of our diets reverse metabolic syndrome?
What happens when you stop feeding kids added sugar?
Our group at UCSF studied forty three Latino and African-American children with obesity and metabolic syndrome over a 10 day period. We started by assessing their metabolic status – insulin and glucose levels, as well as blood fats and other markers for disease, like lactate and free fatty acids – on their home diet.
For the next nine days, each child ate an individual tailored diet. We catered their meals to provide same number of calories and protein and fat content as their usual home diet. We gave them the same percentage of carbohydrate, but we substituted starch for sugar. The big difference: this special diet had no added sugar. This means their diet had no sugar from sugarcane or high fructose corn syrup. The kids consumed foods such as fruits and other whole foods that naturally contain some sugar. These foods also have fibre, which reduces the rate of sugar absorption, so they don’t affect the body the same way that added sugar does.