Sugar – are you a user or an abuser?

As experts flail around not solving the global obesity crisis Craig Sams ponders the merits of establishing a new category of crime – Food Abuse

Fat Chance, a recent book by Prof. Robert Lustig, puts forth the hypothesis that it is sugar, not fat, that is making us fat, diabetic and lazy. It rang a little bell so I pulled out an insightful little paperback book called About Macrobiotics, published in 1972. It read: “It is quite natural to find that diabetics are fat, reflecting heavy sugar consumption.” The author went on to write: “If sugar were discovered yesterday it would be banned and handed over to the Army for weapons research.”  The author? Some 26-year-old, name of Craig Sams. Yeah, the chocolate guy.

When my kids came home from school, grumpy and hungry, I’d cross-examine them to see if they’d sneaked some sugary junk with their pals.  They grew up with a healthy attitude to sugary food, less fanatical than me, but moderate to the point of being minimal with sugar. When I announced that Whole Earth Foods was about to sprout Green & Black’s chocolate, they were horrified.  When I took it to Community Foods Tim Powell fixed me with a beady eye and spluttered: “Chocolate? You? Craig Sams, who got us all to give it up back in the day?” It’s true that my brother Gregory and I persuaded the Natural Foods Union to state in our 1973 manifesto that we would not stock sugar or products containing sugar. This pledge held until 1991, when Green & Black’s came along and blew the gates off their hinges. Sugar, organic sugar even, was back in the game.

Robert Lustig almost hits the nail on the head.  For sure overconsumption of sugar is the cause of obesity and obesity related diseases like diabetes.  But he blames advertisers and a cynical drug-peddling mentality among food companies. James Ehrlichmann’s mini-book “Addicted to Food – Understanding the Obesity Epidemic” says we are food addicts, with sugar, fat and salt being the key addictive substances that work on the brain like opiates to keep addicts hooked.  He points out that since Stone Age days we are biologically programmed to lay on fat in anticipation of times when the mammoths and berries are scarce. He wants regulation and taxation. But there are so many addictive substances: sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate, alcohol, tobacco, mood-altering pharmaceuticals, cocaine, painkillers, opiates, even television and sex.

We’re all hooked on some combination or the other of them. Every addict has their own preferred folly mixture.  At times I’ve been hooked on cigarettes, alcohol, chocolate and ice cream, even a few months dabbling in cocaine and for 40 years drank at least 6 cups of tea a day.  So I know a thing or two about addiction, (though never got into hard stuff like opiates or coffee and steered well clear of over-the-counter and prescription drugs). I still enjoy many of the above, but I’m in control now and don’t overdo them.

Taxation and haranguing users with traffic lights and skull and crossbones images won’t change things. Cigarette consumption fell because of smoking bans in restaurants and pubs, not because of taxes.

But we can’t ban food in restaurants and pubs. So what to do? Why not create a new category of crime called ‘Food Abuse.’  Anyone whose Body Mass Index exceeds 30 gets hauled up before a magistrate. If they have a mitigating factor such as a glandular condition they get let off. Otherwise, sentence them to four weeks … at a retreat in the countryside.

A day in a NHS hospital costs £300 – a week at a health farm with full detox treatments, healthy diet, nutrition education, yoga, pilates, wheat grass juice and country walks – the lot, costs £100 a day, a third of the price. Prevention isn’t just better than cure, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper.

Anyone who’s been to a health farm knows it only takes a few weeks of enforcing healthy habits to drive out the unhealthy ones. The reformed characters will be less likely to be a burden on the NHS so there’s a long term payback,too. The ex-cons will also be more likely to shop in a natural food shop than at Iceland. The big food companies and supermarkets will respond in a flash – they have no particular commitment to one food or another, they just sell what people buy.

There is no silver bullet to cure obesity and there is no single junk food. The ‘junkie’ is us and the monkey on our back can only be controlled by going cold turkey and learning good habits.