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Sugar rush

On a daily basis, British children are consuming an addictive substance with a direct correlation to debilitating, long-term diseases and health problems.

It’s making them obese, causing them to develop type-2 diabetes, forcing them to have teeth extracted, and shortening their life spans.

With one in four British children overweight or obese, and diet-related illnesses costing the NHS over £5.1 billion every year, the movement to control sugar consumption among children in particular is growing.

One of the suggestions, touted by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, is a sugar tax. Fizzy drinks are the focus of this measure, and Oliver has pointed out that a tax of “seven pence extra on a can of Coke is a billion quid a year” in revenue.[1] He’s calling for sugar to be taxed as a means of reducing consumption of this potentially harmful substance, “just like tobacco and anything else that can, frankly, destroy lives”.[2]

So, what is so damaging about the consumption of sugar in Britain today?

The first aspect is that we’re consuming too much, and sugary products are often directly marketed to children. Think Frosties, Ribena, Munch Bunch, Haribo, etc. These products are colourful, decorated in child-friendly images and often designed to fit in school lunch boxes; they’re also loaded with sugar.

The second aspect is the way that sugar is hidden in our modern diets. Oblivious consumption of sugar promotes excessive consumption and many Britons would be shocked at the idea that they consume the average 238 teaspoons of sugar each week. But when you consider that an average serving of muesli for breakfast can amount to more than 42 teaspoons of sugar a week and a serving of yoghurt a day contributes a whopping 68 teaspoons to your weekly sugar intake, it’s not so difficult to see how that number stacks up. And these are the ‘healthy’ options, before jam is added to toast, sugar to hot drinks, and sweets after school factored in.

A final factor in the problem with sugar consumption is how we crave it. For children and adults alike, fructose and glucose, the molecules our bodies break sugar down into, are addictive. Sugar stimulates the “feel-good” chemical dopamine, meaning, like an addict, we crave that high again and again.[3]

For adults, understanding the significant health risks sugar can pose, such as diabetes and obesity, helps us to exercise self-control over these cravings and control our sugar intake. The statistics in Oliver’s recent television show “Sugar Rush” were certainly a wake-up call for many, with over 7,000 amputations due to diabetes taking place every year! For children however, exercising self-control because of frightening statistics like this isn’t as easy. As Oliver’s documentary revealed, sugary food is directly marketed to children – placed in their eye line in shops and advertised during their favourite shows. Factor in children’s inability to understand delayed gratification, i.e. the benefits of resisting a gratifying experience for the sake of later benefits, and it’s easy to see how adults need to be the ones to step in and prevent over-consumption of sugar by children.[4]

Interestingly, one of the ways that children can be taught self-control is by having a reliable environment, for example, being informed about the reasons they should avoid a certain action and trusting the adults around them. (University of Rochester, 2011) So greater education among children could be one aspect of the approach, and a sugar tax may prove a good start to curbing consumption as well.

Whatever approaches are chosen, this needs to be done soon. With diet-related illness predicted to bankrupt the NHS by 2050, costing more than £45 billion, it’s clear that urgent preventative action needs to be taken on this issue.[5] A major re-think about what children are consuming and how, collectively, children’s health can be safeguarded for the future is necessary.

There are a number of ways schools can contribute to this effort. Many schools have healthy eating policies in place for the school meals they provide, while others have rules regarding the foods that children can bring to school in their lunchboxes (for example, no chocolate bars or packets of crisps). Recognising the importance of a nutritious breakfast, some schools have even raised money to implement a morning breakfast scheme, ensuring all children are ready to learn at the beginning of the day and giving parents a much needed extra 30 minutes in the morning.

Of course, schools are only able to address some of the problem, and the food choices made by children and parents outside of school hours have a great deal of impact. Despite this, by ensuring that children eat nutritious, wholesome food at lunch and breakfast time, alongside a strong programme of physical education lessons, schools can play a major part in tackling the current epidemic and ensuring a healthier future.

There’s lots more about how your school can tackle this issue available at TheSchoolBus.

[1] Cass Farrar (2015) ‘Jamie Oliver on his new campaign: “We need a sugar tax”’, <http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2015-09-03/jamie-oliver-on-his-new-campaign-we-need-a-sugar-tax> [Accessed: 3 September 2015]

[2] Ben Farmer (2015) ‘Jamie Oliver: Sugar can destroy lives and should be taxed like tobacco’ <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/11323096/Jamie-Oliver-Sugar-can-destroy-lives-and-should-be-taxed-like-tobacco.html> [Accessed: 26 August 2015]

[3] Dina Spector (2015) ‘An Evolutionary Explanation For Why We Crave Sugar’ <http://www.businessinsider.com/evolutionary-reason-we-love-sugar-2014-4#ixzz3l2YnBF2V> [Accessed: 26 August 2015]

[4] University of Rochester (2011) ‘The Marshmallow Study Revisited’ <http://www.rochester.edu/news/show.php?id=4622> [Accessed: 26 August 2015]

[5] Rebecca Smith (2007) ‘Obesity epidemic “could bankrupt” NHS’ <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1566227/Obesity-epidemic-could-bankrupt-the-NHS.html> [Accessed: 26 August 2015]

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