Soft drinks, industrial bakery products, dairy desserts, ketchup, alcoholic beverages … All these are frequent foods in our western diet: highly caloric, very appetizing and rich in added sugars. To this list could be added, among many others, the cereals we consume for breakfast, energy drinks, jams, etc.
The food industry makes use of this element that is so attractive to the human palate, sugar, to enhance the taste of all these products, eventually causing a clear dependence on these processed foods.
Sugar: a shadow pandemic
The World Health Organization estimates 25 grams of sugar per day as the recommended amount, setting an upper limit in adults of 50 grams. However, consumption in western societies far exceeds this limit, reaching 70 grams per day per person in Spain and 126.4 in the United States (Pablos, 2016).
Within these rates only free sugars are included, i.e. those added artificially during food processing. Natural sugars present, for example, in fruit do not constitute a serious hazard.
The effects of irresponsible sugar consumption
The counterproductive effects of this high intake of processed sugars are not limited to simple tooth decay, but go far beyond that. While in developing countries the main cause of death is infectious disease, in developed countries the vast majority of deaths are due to non-communicable diseases. Among these, the vast majority are aggravated by lifestyle and diet; these include cardiovascular diseases (stroke, heart attack, etc.) and metabolic diseases, i.e. diabetes mellitus, obesity, atherosclerosis, hyperlipemia and hypertension. The intake of the above-mentioned foods and, consequently, the accumulation of excess fat in the body, cause these diseases to be aggravated (Álvarez-Campillo, 2009).
Faced with this western epidemic of sugar addiction, countries such as the United Kingdom are proposing to tax the consumption of sweetened soft drinks with taxes of up to 20%. Others, such as Hungary, set this rate according to the amount of sugar, fat and salt contained in the food. This measure caused many manufacturers to reduce these ingredients to avoid paying more tax, resulting in positive changes to consumers’ diets (Galindo, 2016).
If it tastes so good, why does it feel so bad?
In his book El mono obeso (2010), José Enrique Campillo Álvarez answers this question from the point of view of Darwinian medicine. This medical approach, also called evolutionary medicine, studies diseases from the context of biological evolution . Since the current “design” of the human being is the result of millions of years of evolution and genetic variation, disease would occur when the human being does not adapt to the demands of the environment.
Our ancestors evolved in contexts where food shortages were chronic and required a great deal of physical exercise to obtain scarce supplies. This situation, which occurred over millions of years, meant that, through natural selection, those individuals who had the necessary genetic adaptations to make the most of periods of abundance and resist shortages survived. Among these adaptations are those that favour metabolic processes that help the accumulation of fat after feeding. Also those that favour the maintenance of these lipid deposits when food is scarce.
The abundance of food, the first step towards denaturation
However, all this has changed since the development of agriculture and livestock farming approximately 15,000 years ago. In contrast to the scarcity suffered by our ancestors, with the development of these technologies came an abundance that had not been seen since our great-great-grandparents, the Ardipithecus ramidus, lived in lush forests, full of fruit within reach. This technological development has reached the point mentioned at the beginning of the article.
Today, without spending hardly any energy, we can ingest large amounts of food despite the fact that in biology there is a universal law that states that every living being needs to “pay” a certain amount of energy through physical activity in order to put something in its mouth. This is the ideal scenario for sugar addiction to appear , because its availability has increased, but the same has not happened with our biological design.
According to Campillo it seems that, despite what the popular saying says, we are not what we eat, but rather we are a product of what our ancestors ate . Following the latest scientific research, it is also suspected that the human body requires a certain amount of physical exercise to achieve normal functioning and maintain a homeostatic balance.
For example, contrary to the general belief that the heart of athletes is hypertrophic as a result of high physical exercise, it would be the organ of the rest of the population that has not acquired the ideal size. Therefore, with our body designed to be inappropriate for the circumstances of the current environment, there is an internal shock that leads to the diseases of opulence.
What are the diseases of affluence?
Obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, dyslipemia and atherosclerosis usually go hand in hand , so this group of diseases has been framed within the so-called Metabolic Syndrome linked to sugar addiction. This, in turn, often leads to cardiovascular disease.
A diet with an unbalanced, high-calorie intake and a sedentary lifestyle could lead, for example, to a progressive accumulation of fat. After ingesting food containing sugars, these are metabolized and transformed into glucose, which would be distributed by the body. When there is an excess of glucose that is not used, it is transformed into fat in the adipose tissue. This accumulation can become excessive in the area of the belly, being this central obesity an important risk factor for the development of cardiovascular diseases.
Type 2 diabetes, whose number will grow to 300 million by 2025, is that which usually appears in adults. It is often associated with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. It causes a deficit in the assimilation of sugars in the body, which results in glucose accumulating in the blood (hyperglycemia) and cannot be used as a source of energy. Insulin, secreted by the pancreas, is responsible for facilitating the entry of glucose into the cells. People with type 2 diabetes develop resistance to insulin, causing these problems. Recently, its incidence is increasing in children and adolescents due to the abuse of sweets and pastries. The main consequence of untreated type 2 diabetes is myocardial infarction and other heart problems.
The term hyperlipemia refers to an excess of circulating fat in the bloodstream. Since it cannot be dissolved in the blood, the fats travel through the arteries, favouring the appearance of cholesterol deposits on the walls of the arteries . On the other hand, in atherosclerosis, excessive harmful fats form plaques in the arteries. When they reach a point of accumulation where the blood can no longer circulate, a heart attack (if it happens in the arteries of the heart) or a stroke (in an artery of the brain) would occur, resulting in the death of the tissue affected by not receiving blood.
Finally, hypertension would also affect adults and be another trigger of cardiovascular disease, in addition to accelerating atherosclerosis. Its visible symptoms may not appear until well into the disease, when excessive blood pressure overloads the arteries to such an extent that one of them ruptures.
Preventing Metabolic Syndrome
No one enjoys the prospect of suffering from these conditions, and yet the vast majority of the population does nothing about it. Food education and awareness of these issues on the part of the health authorities could help to curb , to a certain extent, this epidemic caused by the diseases of opulent societies. Given that the human genome has not changed in the last thousands of years, the more we bring our lifestyle closer to the biological design of our body, the more our health will thank us.
Regarding dietary guidelines, as a doctor Campillo recommends reducing the current daily amount of calories eaten, reducing the intake of fast carbohydrates (sweets), increasing the consumption of foods containing vegetable fiber and reducing those with saturated and trans fats, and paying special attention to those foods containing chemicals that may be toxic or contaminating. With regard to physical exercise, to balance the balance a moderate intensity and long lasting activity is recommended. That is, for example, walking for an hour a day at a good pace or jogging for at least forty minutes three to four days a week. A good walking distance would be 6 kilometres a day, or 12,000 steps , if you have a step counter.
In conclusion, despite the short-term temptation caused by the succulent foods around us, a look into the future and a good information base should help us avoid certain unnecessary excesses.
- Campillo, J. (2009). Darwinian medicine of the diseases of opulence. Available at: http://buleria.unileon.es/xmlui/handle/10612/2440
- Campillo, J. (2010). The obese monkey. Barcelona: Criticism.
- Galindo, C. (2016). Can taxes on sugary soft drinks save lives? [online] THE COUNTRY.
- Pablos, G. (2016). Liters of sugar… run through your veins. [online] ELMUNDO.