The worst thing you can eat is sugar: an update

The WHO recommends that sugar be no more than 5% of daily energy intake

The WHO recommends that sugar be no more than 5% of daily energy intake

Refined sugar is one of the worst things found in the Western diet. Back in January, this blog covered the release of a major report from ‘Action on Sugar’, which stated that the obesity epidemic could be reversed if, on average, each person ate 100 fewer calories of refined sugar per day (1).  For example, with half of the U.S. population drinking sugar drinks on any given day (2), and a 330 mL can of Coca-Cola or Pepsi clocking in at 9 tsp of sugar (139 calories), removing soft drinks alone could make a huge difference.

On 5 March 2014, the World Health Organization updated their global sugar intake guidelines (3).  The existing guidelines, developed in 2002, were that sugars should make up no more than 10% of total energy (calorie) intake per day.  The new WHO draft guideline proposes a further reduction limiting sugars to be below 5% of daily energy intake (3).  For a person of a health body mass index (BMI), 5% of daily energy intake would be around 6 teaspoons of sugar (3).  For comparison, this table shows the amount of sugar that are ‘hidden’ in common processed foods.

The WHO has stated:

There is increasing concern that consumption of free sugars, particularly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, may result in both reduced intake of foods containing more nutritionally adequate calories and an increase in total caloric intake, leading to an unhealthy diet, weight gain, and increased risk of noncommunicable diseases (3).

The new sugar intake guidelines are a rough draft at this point and the WHO is inviting public consultation from 5 to 31 March 2014.  This page has the information necessary for those members of the public who are interesting in providing comments to the WHO on the new draft guidelines (4).  This is the chance for members of the public to give input on policy that may have a wide effect on populations.

The proposed sugar intake is less than a can of Coke per day (5).  I believe this is perfectly advisable to anyone wanting to improve their health, but is in practical terms, is it realistic?  The guidelines, when taken as personal health advice, might be unrealistic for some people as sugar-laden processed foods such as soda are readily available, the food industry spends millions on advertising these foods to us, and drinking Coke and eating processed foods is often a social norm.  Is it right to put the onus on individuals for their dietary behaviour when personal food intake is so heavily influenced by the external environment?  A person would have to be terribly health conscious and strong willed to nearly eliminate sugar from their diet when it is so easy to access.

Regardless of any initial teething problems (sorry, I had to), these new guidelines are a positive step forward in improving the nutritional value of food systems.  The WHO suggests that the new guidelines can be used by policymakers to ‘assess current levels of free sugars relative to a benchmark and develop measures to decrease intake of free sugars, where necessary, through public health interventions’.  These actions are needed and would be beneficial.  However, reducing the content of added, refined sugar by the food industry itself is another crucial step that must be taken in addition to health sector intervention.  Hopefully the new sugar intake guidelines can be a stepping stone for health policy and the food industry to move forward together in reducing refined sugars in processed foods.

  1. Action on Sugar. Worldwide experts unite to reverse obesity epidemic by forming ‘Action on Sugar’. (accessed 9 March 2014).
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Consumption of sugar drinks in the United States, 2005-2008. (acessed 9 March 2014).
  3. World Health Organization. Draft guideline: Sugars intake for adults and children. (accessed 9 March 2014).
  4. World Health Organization. WHO opens public consultation on draft sugars guideline. (accessed 9 March 2014).
  5. Boseley S. Adults should cut sugar intake to less than a can of Coke a day, says WHO. The Guardian. 5 March 2014. (accessed 9 March 2014).
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2 Responses to The worst thing you can eat is sugar: an update

  1. Marian says:

    There are so many hidden sugars in food it’s about time companies were forced to put the correct information on all food labels. The rise in Type2 Diabetes is mainly due the consumption of too much sugar in our diets and it is about time the issue was addressed.

  2. :-P says:

    I liked this article. I especially like how you provided the example that just one can of Coke has more sugar than the WHO recommended “total” daily sugar intake. If consumers are educated, and companies receive both public and government pressure to make common-sense changes, I think this could lead to a much healthier and happier world. Thanks.