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Health Hack #61 - Human Sustainability and One of it's Primary Obstacles

Why is obesity plaguing our poorer communities?

If ever you’ve wondered to yourself how our poorest communities (locally, but also globally) manage to become inflicted by obesity, the correct answer is probably not an obvious one. It is not primarily due to an excessive intake of food, despite the packaging of cheap, processed, borderline addictive, high-calorie and nutrient-devoid “food” playing a supporting role. Nor is it due largely to cultural components that don’t place much value on wellness routines like exercise and sound sleep, and fail in the education system to inform populations about nutrition (these, too, are factors, albeit not leading ones). The reality is that soft drinks stand head and shoulders above all other factors as the primary culprit. Those seemingly innocuous beverages that we’ve likely all consumed for some decent stretch of our lives, potentially continuing to do so to this day.

Sugar sweetened beverages - which extend beyond “soft drinks” to also include sports drinks, juices, and other concoctions that lack the carbonation AND added sweetener combination that constitute the criteria for soft drinks - are the highest cause of obesity worldwide, particularly so in the U.S., which calls home to most of the recognizable titans in the global soft drinks market.

How can this be? The reasoning is actually quite simple. For one, soft drinks cost nearly nothing to make. They’re composed primarily of water (which is basically free), and they’re sweetened with products that cost virtually nothing. They began with table sugar, but over the years products like high fructose corn syrup supplanted table sugar as a cheaper and even sweeter alternative. Their low price point puts them within reach of even the lowest income levels.

In addition to being inexpensive to make - and therefore inexpensive to sell - they’re also easy to consume in abundance. A 20oz bottle of Coca Cola has 65 grams of sugar. If you’re thirsty, this can be downed in 10-20 seconds without much difficulty. If consuming the same sugar content in real food, it’s a totally different story.  

Take grapes, one of nature’s most sugary treats. To consume an equivalent amount of sugar to the 20oz soda, one must consume three full cups, packed to the brim. With the additional time needed to consume this much sugar by way of grapes, the likelihood of flavor fatigue is much more likely to set in before reaching the end of that third, redundant cup. With the bit of fiber and protein involved, there’s also going to be a more significant hit to one’s satiety. For these reasons combined, it’s far less likely one will polish off enough grapes to hit the 65g of sugar mark. But even if you do, it will be accompanied by an onslaught of quality micronutrients, consumed over a much lengthier period of time, with far less room existing for further indulgences, and therefore dishing a less severe blow than the bottle of soda, despite equivalent sugar quantities. (To be clear - scarfing down 65g worth of naturally occurring sugar isn’t a good idea either.)

So you take a product and you engineer it to be extraordinarily cheap, extraordinarily tasty, not particularly satiating, and a legitimate shortcut to most of mother nature’s built in moderation mechanisms, and what do you get? One that is over-consumed beyond belief. No wonder.

Another 5 Years of Questionable Guidelines…

Just this past week, the federal government rejected a push by a scientific advisory board that had recommended reducing the guidelines of added sugar intake from 10% of one’s overall caloric intake down to 6% (learn more here). Added sugar qualifies as a sugar-based sweetener that is added to a product in order to sweeten it. It ranges from highly processed high fructose corn syrup all the way to honey, which, despite being classified as a real food, is most often used as an additive. Added sugar, in this particular case with these federal guidelines in question, is differentiated from naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in grapes.

The advisory board, composed of a group of nutrition experts and doctors, is appointed directly by the federal government itself. On the surface, the irony is strange. Why would an entity blatantly disregard the recommendations made by a panel of experts that itself had appointed to seek direction from? The answer, like the poverty/obesity correlation, isn’t very obvious.  

It is not that the science doesn’t overwhelmingly point to the pitfalls of excessive sugar intake; especially where added sugar is concerned, in products like soft drinks. The scientific literature clearly ties excess sugar consumption to Type 2 Diabetes as a legitimate cause/effect phenomenon. To check this for yourself, simply enter “added sugar obesity” into a pubmed search and sift through the never ending associated links that appear.

It is also not that the carefully curated advisory board submitted embellished information in support of their recommendation, or that they were suspected of some other type of wrongdoing that cast skepticism on their advocacy for mandating a reduction in acceptable added sugar intake. Had their recommendations hinged on fudged data, then it might be understandable that their suggestion was dismissed despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

It is that, unfortunately, the food and agriculture industry has a tendency towards being strongarmed by lobbyist groups. And there are few more powerful than those representing the soft drink industry. The USDA can publish comments all they want, aiming to dispel a causal link between excess sugar and poor health, but the real truth stands out in the science, and is fairly irrefutable. (For much more information on the subject, refer to the work of Dr. Mark Hyman as a dense starting point.) 

As if selling a catalogue of products that have all gained FDA approval (despite providing no nutritional benefit), are insanely cheap to manufacture, and remain in extremely high demand wasn’t enough, it turns out that these behemoth companies have another key advantage over most others in the food and beverage space. It’s this precise advantage that helps them line their pockets to a much deeper degree and provide the financial bandwidth to allow them to dig their heels in deeper whenever confronted with potential legislation poised to shine a gloomy light on their best performing products. The soda industry at large is America’s largest welfare recipient. How could this be so? 20% of all soda revenues come from food stamps.  

We devise a program like SNAP (SNAP = Food Stamps 2.0, standing for “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program”), meant to help our poorer communities access the food they need to live and to thrive. At the very same time, we watch as our food and agriculture legislation takes questionable turn after questionable turn (research all of our latest federal Farm Bills for all of the additional supporting evidence you’ll ever need to arrive at the same conclusion). Federal mandates, regulations, and recommendations enable products like conventional soft drinks to be marketed and sold in good light. This assists in keeping their price points low and thereby particularly alluring to those (our poorer communities) in most need of finding truly healthy alternatives for the anti-nutrient sugar bombs that most of these soft drinks truly are. The majority of farm subsidies support mono-crops (such as corn and soy) over diverse and regenerative methodologies, inflicting severe market pressures that work against reducing the price of the healthier option in virtually every case. The price and availability gap spans ever wider, and suddenly it makes perfect sense that things are the way they are, as sad as it is.

Measures like soda taxes, implemented at the state and local levels, are a step in the right direction. But given the momentum that was at play prior to their initiation, it’s likely not enough to curb the obesity epidemic in any noteworthy manner. What we need first and foremost is for the federal government to fully acknowledge the power of real food, and for all of us to begin focusing on the sustainability of our human population. We love to embrace one another over sustainability as it pertains to our food supply and our planet at large, but oddly, we tend to overlook the human component, where 70% of Americans are overweight and more than 40% are classified as obese. The soda narrative just happens to be a powerful and straightforward lens through which this lesser discussed human sustainability concern is magnified.

What can be done???

The green movement that has been growing like wildfire over the past decade provides an interesting comparison, and likely an explanation as to why obesity is getting worse, and not better. How many conversations have you had or overheard about the need for increased renewable energy, and the need to reduce our individual and collective carbon footprint? These are subjects that in recent years have been brought to the forefront of our national dialogue, and with good reason. We’ve witnessed the surge in demand for electric vehicles, local prohibitions on single use plastics, and a general rise in environmental conscientiousness. We’ve gotten here because the public rallied together to identify a problem, legislation ensued in support of correcting it, and all of our interests became quickly aligned. Ten years ago one wouldn’t think twice about loading their trunk with a dozen paper and plastic bags after a trip to the grocery store. Nowadays, at least in the more environmentally thoughtful grocery chains, one might feel more like a pariah for not bringing their own reusable bags. This is real progress.

The key difference, at least from my perspective, is that the topic of obesity is far more taboo. Imagine saying to a friend: “Hey - I noticed you have tons of plastic water bottles in your fridge. I was doing the same for years, but in an effort to cut down on my single use plastic consumption, I bought a new water filter and a couple of reusable 20oz bottles. I now have way more space in the fridge, I basically made my money back in a month, and I’m no longer filling up my recycling bin every week with a bunch of plastic - all in the name of improving the environment.” While being fairly direct, it’s hard to imagine someone being offended by the suggestion.

Now flip the script and insert body weight in place of plastic bottles. “Hey - I noticed you’ve put on a lot of weight recently. I was pretty heavy not too long ago. I eliminated wheat from my diet altogether, did away with soda and desserts, and just started avoiding processed foods altogether.  I now feel better, I'm more productive, and I'm bound to be pose much less of a strain on our health care system now that I've shifted myself away from a path towards metabolic disease.  If you’re open to it, you should try doing the same.”

It may sound mostly inoffensive, because, well - it's based on science, and its advice that would be in the best interest of those receiving it.  If you care for someone then you’re interested in seeing them become the best version of themselves. But would you actually say it to someone close to you? If yes, would you feel comfortable having the same conversation with as many people as you’d have the water filter conversation with? Or would there be a double standard for the two conversations?

To truly have a healthy planet, we need to have a healthy population. The two are intricately intertwined. There are plenty of potential solutions for solving this problem, but we can’t get to any of them unless we’re first willing to have the needed conversations. As we kick off the new year, and as many rally themselves to improve certain aspects of their lives for 2021, this subject should really become a part of our collective dialogue.  For our own good, for the good of those close to us, and certainly for the good of the less fortunate, who are the most susceptible to falling victim to the perils inherent in our modern day food culture.  An open dialogue is often the first step to change.