I just finished watching a new show on BBC 2 called The men who made us fat. It was part 1 of a 3 part documentary series discussing how the obesity epidemic occurred in both the United States and the United Kingdom. For more information on the program you can catch the summary below on the BBC site
The good part about the show is it went into some of the political manoeuvrings which took place both in government and the food lobby which helped create a situation where we see a lot of processed junk food on the shelves of supermarkets today. Key points included the adoption in the USA of policies designed to raise the production of corn to raise standards of living among American farmers and also to ensure the votes of rural voters during a tight election in 1972. This led to the overproduction of cheap, subsidised corn which has led to corn based products becoming ubiquitous in American food products including corn fed cattle, corn in condiments, and the inclusion of high fructose corn syrup in soft drinks. The programme makers clearly felt and argued that it was the rise in sugar consumption in general, and high fructose corn syrup in particular which was fuelling the obesity epidemic.
The programme makers also took opinions from some well known figures in health and fitness including Dr. Robert Lustig who has previously made the case against fructose consumption, and Gary Taubes, a well known author who advocates low carbohydrate diets as being superior to the type of high carbohydrate, low fat diet which the programme makers said was the result of food lobby policies. The programme makers explored in brief some of the neuroscience behind food selection showing via MRI scans that the very sight of high sugar/high fat food provokes a strong response in the brain.
The programme concluded by showing how lobbying by the sugar lobby led to the acceptance within government that fat was the macronutrient that could be safely attacked by public health policy without arising the ire of the powerful groups representing the sugar lobby. In fact, by publicly castigating fat, it gave the opportunity for the food manufacturers to produce and market a range of low fat products which consumers falsely believed could not make them fat, with the fat in products often replaced with sugar to make them more palatable.
One thing you tend to see a lot in mainstream television shows is a false dichotomy presented as fact. In this particular case, the programme appears to be one which is presenting a choice of obesity being down to fat or carbohydrate consumption and presented arguments from those who are anti-carbohydrate and, for the sake of minimal balance, presented a historical perspective on how fat came to be demonised on the basis of scientists concluding that poor heart health in the United Kingdom was attributable to our high fat diets several decades ago. Unfortunately, presenting this debate with nobody around who they interviewed to support it showed straight away that the programme intended to make sugar the villain of the piece. This continued as a theme throughout the show with only a nodding reference to overall calories being key to determining weight gain alongside patterns of exercise.
While the programme presents an interesting thesis the argument is flawed both by the lack of balance and the fact that the programme makers pay scant attention to other factors which, since the 1970′s, have made life easier for people leading to both less formal and informal physical activity. Witness the rise of remote controls, and modern household conveniences such as microwaves as factors that lower peoples’ energy output while the decline in the Uk in particular of formal exercise in school has led to a generation of unfit people.
A more honest and realistic analysis would include the above and also make the point that there is no either/or dichotomy when it comes to fats versus carbohydrates. Rather, it is not specific macronutrients that make anybody fat but overall caloric consumption per day minus caloric expenditure. The programme spent quite a bit of time talking about the evils of high fructose corn syrup but I wonder how many viewers of the programme realise that high fructose corn syrup is practically identical to normal table sugar. HFCS is 55% fructose and 45% glucose while table sugar (sucrose) is 50% of each. While the programme talked a little about how fructose can more easily trigger fat deposition and inhibit the action of leptin, they ignored other evidence discussed in our article on fructose and visceral fat
which showed a fructose preload decreased subsequent caloric consumption (1). Having said that we would repeat our advice to moderate fructose consumption and keep it at a maximum of 50g of fructose a day.
I guess the interesting thing is that as athletes we are most unlikely to be the kinds of individuals who would consume litres of soft drinks a day but, for those who do, it bears repeating from our piece on fructose that the kind of obese person who consumes a glut of soft drinks is more likely to consume more food the following day according to one study (2). Therefore while the programme makers should have stressed the importance of caloric balance as being fundamentally important and paid more attention to the lack of exercise rather than demonising sugars, it is worth saying that for the average obese American, an excess of fructose consumption could potentially play a role in triggering increases in appetite and play a small part to play in the obesity epidemic.
I’ll be interested to see what part 2 of this programme brings but for now I
will reserve judgement.
Author: Reggie Johal
1. Monsivais et.al Sugars and Satiety (2007) Does the type of sweetener make a difference
2. Teff KL, et al. Dietary fructose reduces circulating insulin and leptin, attenuates postprandial suppression of ghrelin, and increases triglycerides in women. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2004 Jun;89(6):2963-72.
© 2012, Reggie Johal. All rights reserved.