Updated 03 February 2014

No single scapegoat for obesity

Blaming a single food for all the overweight people in the world is a pointless exercise, warns DietDoc. Obesity is a much more complex problem.

The human race is in danger of extinction because we eat too much and the levels of obesity and its associated diseases of lifestyle soar ever higher with each passing month. Soon 100% of the populations of affluent and poor nations alike will be overweight or obese (Tran, 2013).

Needless to say, governments and regulatory agencies, public watchdogs and health professionals are scrabbling to find a solution and let’s face it, we do need a solution and a quick one at that. In the meanwhile many of the players are looking for what I call a "Fat Scapegoat". We need something to blame for this epidemic. And lately sugar and refined carbohydrates have been likened to be "Just as bad as booze" (Child, 2013) or "As dangerous as opioid drugs".

Read: Carbs and weight loss

A popular pastime

We humans like the idea of one factor or person or food being responsible for all our ills, which we can then single out as a "scapegoat". After all, modern politics have conditioned us to look for someone to blame for every single thing that goes wrong and many an honest subordinate has taken the fall for things that go wrong at the top.

Sacrificing one villain as a scapegoat also fits in well with our idea that there is an easy and fast fix for something as complex as obesity. “Take this pill/root/potion and you will be slim and lovely again.” It sounds like a line from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

So trying to blame one food, especially sugar, for all the overweight people in the world is indeed a popular pastime, but the question we need to ask ourselves is if the instant fix of shunning sugar is actually going to work? I don’t think so, because there is probably no field more complex than the foods we eat and the physiological, psychological and emotional consequences thereof.

Read: Food addiction: myth or reality?

A complex problem

The tendency to gain weight is governed by hundreds of different factors:
 - which foods we eat (low-energy versus obesogenic foods)
 - what quantities of food we eat
 - what combinations of foods we eat
 - our genetic makeup
 - how much physical activity we engage in
 - our emotional makeup
 - hormones in our bodies
 - hormones in our environment (such as oestrogen disruptors like triclosan and triclocarban which are used in popular antiseptics and disinfectants and then enter the water supply and are transferred into plants and then into animals and then into the food chain) (Power, 2014)
 - prior dietary history going back as far as the womb (undernourished, underweight babies are vulnerable to all the diseases of lifestyle, including obesity)
 - probably hundreds of as yet unidentified factors, for example virus infections that may trigger obesity
In view of the above, anyone who proposes to solve the problem of obesity by "declaring war on sugar" is probably being highly optimistic.

Read: 5 sugar myths

Thrifty gene alert

Now that the earth’s population has exceeded 7 billion people (and is growing daily), and this intense overcrowding coupled with the effects of global warming, threatens our food supplies, it is quite possible that these factors have triggered an emergency response in our "Thrifty Genes" to store as much fat as we can for the lean times that lie ahead for our species. Someone who has 200kg of fat tucked into his or her storage depots will last a lot longer when our daily kilocalorie or kilojoule ration drops to 300 kcal or 1260 kJ per day, than someone who is skinny!

This may sound like science fiction but if ever increasing areas of the globe are no longer capable of producing food - and I am not talking about animal protein foods, but just plain staple cereals - then we will have to start rationing food again as was necessary during the two world wars.

World wars

During these bleak periods there were no luxury foods, very little fat, hardly any protein, no sugar, but just staple cereals and basic vegetables on the menu. It is interesting to note that most people did lose weight, the incidence of caries (tooth decay) dropped and those individuals who were not casualties of bombing or other war-related deaths and who did not die of outright starvation or deficiency diseases like pellagra, experienced less degenerative disease than before or after each of these global wars (Tran, 2013).

So a greatly reduced energy intake and a relatively monotonous diet may help us to survive as a species, but it won’t be gastronomically exciting to say the least and the slightest imbalance may expose us to starvation and/or deficiency diseases.

Very overweight people will "last longer" than those people who are very thin at the start of a famine. Our genes which have coped with such periods of feast and famine for millennia, may thus be preparing us to survive the mega-famines that loom in the future.

Example of Thrifty Genes at work

Survivors of Word War 2 prison camps never left a morsel of food on their plates even decades after being liberated. As a small child I experienced this when my one uncle who had been interned during the Desert Campaign and landed up in one of the “Stalag” prison camps in Silesia, used to clean not only his own vast plate of food down to the last crumb, but to my aunt’s intense embarrassment would then ensure that every plate on the table was shiny clean!

The years of deprivation in the prison camp where their energy intake could never compensate for the strenuous physical work the prisoners had to do or the freezing temperatures they were exposed to for many months of the year, probably activated the Thrifty Genes in people like my uncle. He would eat every kind of food, not just sugar, because his body had learned to prioritise food intake, no matter what food was put before him.

The balanced approach

I firmly believe that it is essential for people who are overweight to reduce their overall energy intake which means eating less food in total. If slimmers are to eat a balanced diet then this means reducing their intake of fat, sugar, alcohol, carbohydrates, and proteins so that they ingest fewer kilocalories or kilojoules.

The approach entrenched in the Food-Based Dietary Guidelines (FBDG) that form the cornerstone of healthy nutrition advice in South Africa is to recommend that everyone should eat a variety of foods as permitted by budgetary constraints and that the intakes of sugar, fat, and salt should be reduced. Please note that the FBDG do not state that any foods should be excluded totally, only that foods which can harm your health need to be used "sparingly" in the case of sugar (and foods and drinks high in sugar), fats (particularly hard fats like block margarine) and salt (and foods high in salt).

Read: Nutrition basics in a nutshell

Be active

The FBDG which were designed specifically for South Africa by experts from all food-, diet- and health-related fields, also contain a non-food/drink guideline which simply states: “Be active!” This Guideline is just as important as all the do’s and don’ts which frantic governments, regulatory agencies, and public watchdogs are trying to force people to follow with punitive legislation if needs be (Tran, 2013). If you don’t use up more energy than you ingest, then you will have a positive energy balance and your body is going to store that energy as fat. So get going and do at least 30 to 45 minutes of physical activity a day if you want to keep overweight and obesity at bay.

Perhaps improving nutrition education and encouraging everyone to be active daily will do more for our figures and our health than all the demonising of single foods will ever achieve. But governments and international organisations also like ‘scapegoats’ and ‘fall guys’, so they will continue to single out various foods which they will blame for their own lack of initiative to teach our populations to eat properly and get back to doing physical work.

20 good reasons to get moving

(References: (Child K (2013). Just as bad as booze. Nutrition experts declare war on sugar as obesity reaches new widths. The Times, January 13th 2014, page 15; Power M (2013). Chemical threat may make for an unsafe pair of hands. Common antibacterial agents fall foul of US regulators over health concerns. Sunday Times, 19th January 2014, Page 17; Tran M (2013. World is losing the battle against Obesity. Study urges governments to intervene in what is put on the dinner table. Sunday Times, 5th January 2013, Page 19. Originally published in The Guardian, London)

(Photo of depressed woman from Shutterstock)

Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Read more of her articles.


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