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Declaring War on Sugar

Montreal Gazette

Sunday, April 14, 2002: —  Worried that Canadian children are becoming too fat, federal Health Minister Anne McLellan says they should turn off their TV sets and computers, and go out and run around. It's true children are more sedentary than they were a generation ago, but there's a flipside to being overweight that needs to be addressed more closely by government and parents: diet.

Ms. McLellan called upon children to become more active in a speech at an Edmonton school April 5, timed to coincide with the publication of Health Canada's Guide for Physical Activity for Children, the first of its kind in the world. It urges children increase their physical activity immediately by 30 minutes a day and build toward a goal of 90 minutes as a daily minimum.

Good. But it would be even better if government were to do more to combat dietary illiteracy. What's needed is a major public-information campaign to help adults and children alike make better choices about what they eat. A major focus of the campaign should be to warn people about the dangers of consuming too much refined sugar and excessive amounts of refined carbohydrates. That's the big problem in North America right now.

Our kids are being fed toxic levels of sugar. A standard 355-ml can of soda might contain up to 18 teaspoons of sugar, according to dietary analyses. Since the body has only a limited amount of storage space for sugar, excess sugar is stored as fat. Consumption of refined carbohydrates - bread, rice, noodles, cakes, cookies and cereals - also needs to be cut back, because these foods quickly release sugar into the bloodstream. If not immediately used as energy, this, too, is stored as body fat.

A century ago, Canadians consumed less than 2 kilograms of sugar a year. Now, we each consume our own body weight of the stuff. As a result, rates of diabetes and obesity have skyrocketed. Targeted public-education initiatives highlighting not only the dangers of sugar but also the prevalence of it on our supermarket shelves would go a long way to improving public health.

Sugar is one of the food industry's favourite ingredients, so it's no surprise it's in many things we eat. Sugar is the No. 1 additive in soup, salad dressing, mayonnaise, peanut butter, canned goods, cereals and even baby food. Every tablespoon of ketchup contains a teaspoon of sugar. Three-quarters of all the sugar we eat is hidden.

In the public mind, dietary fat has come to be seen as the big no-no, but it's a prejudice that blinds us to the more elementary problem of excessive sugar and refined-carb consumption. Telling kids to exercise more is a simplistic half-solution. Health Canada needs to go one step farther and mail every household in the country a basic nutrition guide, in the form of a pamphlet, and a handy-reminder checklist that could be posted on the family fridge. If the right messages were to sink into public consciousness, the cost of such a campaign would be recouped in reduced health-care expenses.

Government should also consider requiring improved labeling on foods, even warning labels on some products, as is already the case for tobacco. Why not require soft-drink companies to state the sugar content of their drinks, either as percentage of sugar by weight or some other measure? And in large type.

Parents could improve dietary quality of their supermarket carts by shopping for the products displayed along the walls of their supermarket instead of, or before, shopping in the middle aisles. This handy rule of thumb is increasingly being promoted by many nutrition experts, who point out the most nutritious foods - fresh produce and meat - are usually located along the periphery of the supermarket configuration. It's in the inner aisles where the concentration of refined sugars and refined carbohydrates is highest.

A diet filled with sugar, bagels, cereals and pasta doesn't simply contribute to diabetes and obesity. It is also now being seen by dieticians and educators as a insidious contributing factor in mood swings, behaviour problems and attention deficits in young children. Some schools already are advising parents to cut back on the sugar content of school lunches. A more aggressive effort by the education sector would help parents become more conscious of the quality of the dietary fuel they're putting in their children's bodies.

Packing high concentrations of sugar into young children is plainly not good for them. When all this sugar is converted by insulin, blood-sugar levels can drop dramatically, producing a loss of energy and general feeling of lethargy. If kids are lying in front of the TV too much, as Ms. McLellan says they are, it's partly because sugar and refined carbs are making them too tired to go out and play.