A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests this generation may be the first in centuries to have shorter life expectancies than their parents. What went wrong?
Our species has spent most of its existence as a hunter-gatherer, and little time as an agriculturalist and almost no time, historically speaking, as a modern city dweller.
Until the end of the last Ice Age, about 13,000 years ago, all peoples, on all continents, were still hunter-gatherers. Many had to cover about 2,000 to 3,500 kilometres on foot each year in the quest for food.
Our body design and the way our body works were designed for a lifestyle very different from ours today. The departure from that lifestyle has surely affected our health.
Close your eyes and imagine a world-class marathon runner. His body build is similar to our ancestors: lean and slightly underweight. Now imagine a person who is so heavy that he cannot see his toes, let alone bend over and touch them. Is this in our future as a species?
Over the past 50 years, consumption of sugar has tripled worldwide. Sugar was only available to our ancestors in fruit at harvest time, or as honey, which was guarded by bees.
Nature made sugar hard to get; man made it easy. In recent years, sugar has been added to nearly all processed foods, mainly in the form of fructose, manufactured from corn syrup.
Every country that has adopted the western diet — one dominated by cheap, tasty, high-caloric processed food — has witnessed rising rates of obesity and its related diseases.
Obesity is an established risk factor for diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and many cancers. A growing body of evidence also argues that excessive sugar consumption by itself can cause high blood pressure, high triglycerides, diabetes and can accelerate the ageing process.
Sugar also has clear potential for abuse. Like tobacco and alcohol, it acts on the brain to encourage more and more consumption.
The most obvious precondition for a population to develop obesity is sufficient wealth. A return to national poverty is not a recommended approach to reduce waistlines.
The obesity epidemic will not be reversed without government leadership, regulation and investment in programs, monitoring, and research.
Denmark is considering taxing sugar. Statistical modeling suggests that the price of high sugar containing products would have to double to significantly reduce consumption.
The new taxes could be used to subsidize the cost of healthy eating. Eventually, food producers must be required to reduce the amount of sugar added to foods.
Add to the mix the gradual replacement of the shovel by the backhoe and the replacement of walking by the car and the school bus. Fewer than seven per cent of school-aged Canadian children are getting the recommended amount of exercise – 60 minutes per day – and more than one in four is overweight or obese.
School seems the best place to inject activity into the daily lives of children and promote healthy lifestyles. When Saskatoon teachers took 20 minutes of Language Arts time and replaced it with exercise, writing scores went up 60 per cent and reading 23 per cent.
With enough advocacy for change, dramatic shifts in policy become possible.
Take as an excellent example, the public health campaigns fought against smoking. Smoking rates have dropped in adults from nearly 50 per cent in 1965 to under 20 per cent today.
It is time to turn our attention to sugar and physical activity.
Dr. Peter Zalan is president of the medical staff at Health Sciences North. His monthly column tackles issues in health care from a local perspective.
Posted by Vivian Scinto