The battle against obesity is as relentless as the fight against sugar. The difference is that the fight against sugar is one of global economics rather than public health. And that’s a problem based in the history of research.
Obesity first emerged as the blockade against bad fats in our diet and quickly became confused with mono, poly, trans-fats and the “good” and “bad” messages that now seem to be circling back to butter.
It is difficult to undo the damage of a voracious oversupply.
A Google Scholar search of scientific articles containing the words fat, obesity and diet showed more than 600,000 published in 2006 – that’s around 1600 articles a day. But during the last decade research output has reduced to a more manageable 55 articles a day (less than 20,000 for the year).
However, it is difficult to undo the damage of a voracious oversupply: people don’t know what to believe in and increasingly we are content to adopt the diagnosis of too much fat (hyperlipidemia) and take statins rather than navigate the lifelong challenge of a diet.
But statins won’t help sugar, which has become the new focus of eradication attempts. Unlike fat, sugar plays much more of a role in filling the emptiness created by a society generally starved of happiness. Unlike fats, which have a long term role in our bodies (cholesterol forms the basis of many of our hormones), sugar is associated with a short term brain fix (fast energy and brief pleasure).
But in the research arena, sugar hasn’t attracted anywhere near the same funding dollars as fat.
In 2006, there were about 40,000 publications and in 2016 that number declined to just over 16,000. Obesity-related diabetes research, however, has increased as we turn once again to drugs to treat the diabetes diagnosis. That’s because the pharmaceutical economy is a significant contributor to global economic health. It has the economic performance of Argentina, and there are almost as many people employed in the sector as are employed in Belgium as a whole.
Like hyperlipidemia (the diagnosis of too much sugar) diabetes is much more palatable, especially now that there are a number of new tablets on the market to treat diabetes and the spectre of insulin injections has lessened.
Sugar is largely a commodity of the developing world. Over 75% of sugar production occurs in Brazil, India, China and Thailand. A sugar tax, which has been proposed in many Western countries won’t hurt their primary producers and unless the sugar tax is ring-fenced for health, it is unlikely to do more than help reduce the general deficit.
Just as in baking, where a successful outcome requires ingredients to be measured, added in the correct order and cooked in the right way, reams of well meaning research will only convert to advances when governments are prepared to integrate health, welfare, food standards, trade and primary production in a meaningful way. Complex problems like obesity require an integrated approach and only governments can merge these portfolios to bring about necessary change.