Factfullness: Sugar and Obesity

“We find simple ideas very attractive. We enjoy the moment of insight, we enjoy feeling we really understand or know something. And it is easy to take off down the slippery slope, from one attention grabbing simple idea to a feeling that this idea beautifully explains, or is the beautiful solution for, lots of other things. The world becomes simple. All problems have a simple cause—something we must always be completely against.

Or all problems have a simple solution—something we must always be for. Everything is simple. There’s just one small issue. We completely misunderstand the world. I call this preference for single causes and single solutions the single perspective instinct.”

So wrote Hans Rosling in his brilliant book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons Why We’re Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think.

Obesity is one area where we are all looking for a simple solution to a serious problem. One food product, sugar, is singled out as the cause of obesity; reducing sugar consumption, or giving it up altogether, is seen as the simple solution.

Most health scientists admit that obesity is more complex than just excessive sugar consumption. Public Health England demonstrates the complexity of the problem of obesity with this “simple” representation of its causes on its website.

Meanwhile, the US Center for Disease Control writes: “There is no single or simple solution to the obesity epidemic. It’s a complex problem and there has to be a multifaceted approach. Policy makers, state and local organizations, business and community leaders, school, childcare and healthcare professionals, and individuals must work together to create an environment that supports a healthy lifestyle.”

The sugar industry argues that sugar is a calorie like all others, and that obesity is caused by excessive calorie consumption compared to physical activity. But what does the data say about calorie consumption?

In the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has carried out annual surveys of the British diet since 1974. Their data shows that there has been a significant decline in UK daily per capita calorie consumption in the last forty years, from 2,534 in 1974 to 1,990 in 2012. This represents a decrease of 21.5 per cent.

What about sugar: has consumption also fallen? The DEFRA survey showed a 16 per cent decline in the consumption of ‘total sugars’ since 1992. Meanwhile, the Institute of Economic Affairs found that in the period 2002 to 2014, sugar consumption fell 7.4 per cent. Meanwhile, research carried out in 2014 by Czarnikow (a consultancy) found that UK sugar consumption peaked at 53 kg/head in 1957, dropped to 48.5 kg by1970 and has since fallen to 35kg/head.

This chart shows the reality of the situation in the US: obesity has risen while per capita calorific sweetener consumption has fallen.

In his book Mr Rosling warns,

“Being always in favour or always against any particular idea makes you blind to information that doesn’t fit your perspective…Constantly test your favourite ideas for weaknesses. Be humble about the extent of your expertise. Be curious about new information that doesn’t fit, and information from other fields.”

In a later chapter Mr Rosling writes about the human need to attribute blame—to always find a (usually evil) culprit. He calls it “The Blame Instinct” and defines it as, “the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened.” He continues,

“It seems that it comes very naturally for us to decide that when things go wrong, it must be because of some bad individual with bad intentions. We like to believe that things happen because someone wanted them to, that individuals have power and agency; otherwise, the world feels unpredictable, confusing and frightening.

“This instinct to find a guilty party derails our ability to develop a true, fact based understanding of the world; it steals our focus as we obsess about someone to blame, then blocks our learning because once we have decided who to punch in the face we stop looking for explanations elsewhere.  

“This undermines our ability to solve the problem…because we are stuck with over-simplistic finger pointing, which distracts us from the more complex truth, and prevents us from focusing our energy in the right places.

In 2016, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a peer-reviewed article that alleged that the sugar industry had subverted health science during the 1950s and 1960s. The article received wide media attention and reinforced the public’s impression of the sugar industry as “evil”, on par with the tobacco industry.

Ask your friends and neighbours what they think about sugar and they will tell you that the world is getting fatter because sugar consumption is increasing, and that this is all the fault of the evil sugar industry. It is a simple explanation for an exceeding complex issue, with someone (evil) to blame.

I will leave the last word to Hans Gosling,

“If you really want to change the world, you have to understand how it actually works and forget about punching anyone in the face.”

Sugar photos from pixabay under creative commons

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