Why the government is going sweet on a sugar tax

The UK government in England is expected to publish its long-awaited child obesity strategy.

The UK government in England is expected to publish its long-awaited child obesity strategy.

At the heart of the debate is the merit, or otherwise, of a sugar tax. Health experts have been campaigning hard for one to be introduced – and even the government advisory body Public Health England has put a case for it.

But for much of the time since the election, ministers have been resistant. Until recently. There are now signs they’re coming round to the idea. This much is obvious from the change in tone from the prime minister himself.

Earlier this month, she said he wasn’t ruling out a tax, which is somewhat different from last year’s statements that she “doesn’t see a need” for it.

A similar flip-flopping could be said to have happened over minimum pricing for alcohol (although that is still in the pending box as no final decision has been made).

Conservatives are naturally wary of introducing new taxes and accusations of the nanny state.

So what has influenced government thinking this time? The delay in publication has certainly allowed the experts to mount a vigorous campaign.

As well as the normal array of doctors and health chiefs, TV chef Jamie Oliver has also waded in. He set up an e-petition which saw more than 150,000 people backing a sugar tax.

Meanwhile, NHS bosses have already announced they will be introducing their own “tax” in hospitals.

Understandably, no government wants to get caught on the wrong side of popular opinion.

But I’m also told that ministers have started to be persuaded by the evidence. One in five children is obese by the time they finish primary school. Include those classed as overweight and the figure jumps to one in three.

Children consume three times as much sugar as they should – with a third of that coming from fizzy drinks. And there is evidence it will work. In Mexico, consumption fell by 6% after a tax of 10% was introduced.

But, of course, the obesity strategy is not just about a tax. Other measures, including a crackdown on shop promotions and advertising (again not natural territory for Tories) as well as a sustained drive to reduce the sugar content of food are also in the mix.

There will be measures to get people more active too, although the emphasis will be very much on diet as there is an acknowledgement that without curbing calories there is a limit to what physical activity can do.

It will be, in effect, an acknowledgement that society is geared too much towards unhealthy lifestyles.

This much is clear from the way we consume food. Just look at food promotions, which are heavily weighted towards unhealthy products. About 40% of expenditure on food goes on promotions, causing us to purchase a fifth more than we would have otherwise, according to PHE.

The result is an unhealthy diet. Last week, researchers at the Food Foundation produced a model of the typical family’s diet.

Every member of the average family consumed too much sugar and saturated fat and too little of the good stuff – fibre, fruit and vegetables and oily fish. What is more, all but the youngest members were eating too much red and processed meat and salt.

It’s no wonder that some in the field are describing obesity as the “new smoking” – and ministers are, bit by bit, being convinced.

 

 

 

Can changing your mealtimes make you healthier?

Many people want to eat more healthily but find it difficult to change their diet.

Many people want to eat more healthily but find it difficult to change their diet.

 

We’ve known for some time that altering the time at which you eat can affect your weight and metabolism. At least if you are a mouse.

Based on mice studies, it seems the secret to improving your health is to restrict the time window within which you eat, and by doing so extend the amount of time you go without food.

A few years ago Prof Satchidananda Panda, from the world-famous Salk Institute in California, showed that mice fed on a high fat diet, but only allowed to eat within an eight hour window, were healthier and slimmer than mice that were given exactly the same food but allowed to eat it whenever they wanted.

In a more recent study the same researchers again subjected hundreds of mice to different lengths of daily fasts, ranging from 12 to 15 hours.
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Again they found that the mice that went for at least 12 hours without eating remained healthier and slimmer than those who ate the same number of calories, but spread out.

But how well would this work in humans? To find out, Trust Me I’m a Doctor recruited 16 volunteers for a 10-week study run by Dr Jonathan Johnston at the University of Surrey.

His team measured the volunteers’ body fat, blood sugar levels, blood fat (triglycerides) and cholesterol levels at the start of the study. They were then randomly assigned to one of two groups, the blues or the reds.

The blues, who were the control group, were asked to carry on as normal. The reds were asked to stick to their normal diet but move their breakfast 90 minutes later, and their dinner time 90 minutes earlier.

This meant that for three extra hours each day they went without food (fasting). Everyone kept a food and sleep diary to ensure that they were eating the same amount as normal.

So why would crunching the time within which you eat change anything? Well, there are two possible mechanisms.

Firstly, there are now plenty of studies which have shown that going for longer periods of time without eating – fasting – is beneficial.

It also seems that your body deals with calories better at certain times of day. According to Johnston, one of the worst times to load up with sugar and fat is late at night, when blood levels of these substances are already high.

After an overnight fast I had some bloods taken, then at 10:00 I had a classic British fry-up – lots of bacon, eggs and sausage. I had more bloods taken directly after the meal and every half hour for the next few hours. And yes, it did hurt.

Twelve hours later, at 22:00, I had my second meal of the day. It was exactly the same meal as I had had for breakfast. Again my bloods were taken regularly over the next few hours before I was eventually allowed to crawl into bed.

The blood tests showed that after my morning meal my blood sugar level returned to normal pretty quickly, while the levels of fat in my blood began to drop after about three hours. In the evening, however, after exactly the same meal, my blood sugar levels stayed high for much longer and the fat levels in my blood were still rising four hours after I finished eating.

So Johnston is right – our bodies really don’t like having to have to deal with lots of food late at night. A midnight snack will have a worse impact on your body than the same food eaten earlier in the day.

There’s an old adage: “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper,” and it appears to be true. If you must have that fry-up, have it for breakfast.

But what about the main experiment, reducing the time period within which our volunteers were allowed to eat? Well, at the end of 10 weeks, we gathered all the volunteers together and repeated the tests.

What we found is that the group who had eaten breakfast later and dinner earlier had, on average, lost more body fat and seen bigger falls in blood sugar levels and cholesterol than the control group.

So it was very positive result and the first randomised trial of this sort carried out in humans.

Sticking rigidly to a reduced eating window may, for many people, not be entirely practical. But there does seem to be benefit from doing it when you can – and it is certainly a good idea to avoid the midnight cheeseburger.

 

Everyone should take vitamin D supplements

Everyone should consider taking vitamin D supplements to counter the lack of sunshine in the UK, government experts are proposing.

 Everyone should take vitamin D pillsThe draft Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition guidelines suggest, from the age of one, 10 microgram pills be taken to ensure people get enough.

Current advice is only at risk groups – including pregnant women, under fives and over 65s – should take supplements.

But as there is no easy way of assessing who is getting enough vitamin D, SACN has proposed a blanket recommendation for everyone because of the benefits it would bring.

However the risk of getting too much vitamin D is considered to be extremely low.

It comes after the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which advises the NHS on treatments, has already suggested vitamin D should be given more widely to counter a hidden epidemics of deficiency.

Official estimates suggest one in five adults and one in six children in England may have low levels.

People get most of their vitamin D from the action of sunlight on their skin. But the amount in food is small, unlike many other vitamins.

The low level of sunlight during these winter months means people in the UK are at risk.

The NICE guidelines called for more free supplements and for supermarkets to sell low cost tablets.

Deficiency can result in rickets and brittle bones.