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Sugar is to blame for obesity epidemic - not couch potato habits

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 23/04/2015 By Laura Donnelly Health Editor

Sugar is to blame for obesity epidemic - not couch potato habits © Associated Press Sugar is to blame for obesity epidemic - not couch potato habits

Sugar and carbohydrates are the real culprits in the obesity epidemic - and the public has been falsely told that couch potato lifestyles are to blame, a new report has claimed. 

Writing in the British Journal Of Sports Medicine, they said poor diet now generates more disease than physical inactivity, alcohol and smoking combined.

The editorial, by a group of cardiologists and sports experts, says that while obesity has rocketed in the past 30 years there has been little change in physical activity levels.

"This places the blame for our expanding waistlines directly on the type and amount of calories consumed," they write.

The authors, who include Prof Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist and adviser to the campaign group Action on Sugar, said the public had been sold a “false perception” that exercise was more important than eating healthily, when the opposite was true. 

Prof Malhotra said US data which tracked obesity and activity levels found little change in activity levels over two decades, while obesity levels soared.

In Britain, 25 per cent of adults are now obese, compared with less than 3 per cent in the 1970s.

Activity levels have not been tracked consistently over the same period, but data from the 1990s and 2000s suggests exercise levels could even be increasing. 

The editorial accuses the food industry of promoting the idea that exercise matters more than food, in tactics described as “chillingly similar” to those of the tobacco industry.

It also attacks the sports industry for links with junk foods, and accuses health clubs and gyms of giving sugary snacks and drinks “a health halo” by selling them on their premises.

“Celebrity endorsements of sugary drinks and the association of junk food and sport must end,” they declare, adding that health clubs and gyms need to set an example by removing the sale of these products from their premises. “The ‘health halo’ legitimisation of nutritionally deficient products is misleading and unscientific,” they write. 

"It is time to wind back the harms caused by the junk food industry's public relations machinery," the editorial concludes.

"Let us bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity. You cannot outrun a bad diet."

They said the public had been sold a myth that all calories were equal, when high sugar consumption was linked to diabetes, and left people hungry, so that they ate more.

The authors, who include Prof Tim Noakes, a sports expert and author on marathon running, also suggest too many people who do exercise are loading up too much on carbohydrates, when they would be better on a high-fat, low carbohydrate diet. 

They said there were growing concerns that even athletes were at risk of developing type 2 diabetes because of the preference for high-carbohydrate diets.

Authors said analysis of a recent Lancet study suggests that around one third of disease is caused by poor diet – while tobacco, alcohol and physical activity between them accounted for less than a sixth of diseases.

However, some other experts criticised the group’s interpretation of some of the research, and said the conclusions were overstated.

Prof Susan Jebb, Professor of Diet and Population Health, University of Oxford, said that trials which compared exercise-only and diet-only attempts to lose weight, found that dieters fared better. However, she said programmes which combine both did best.

“Given that obesity, an unhealthy diet and physical inactivity are all risk factors for chronic disease, it makes good sense to seek to change both diet and activity behaviours to lose weight and improve health,” she said.

Catherine Collins, spokesman for The British Dietetic Association, said exercise could burn up a modest calorie load, but also improved mood, and might mean people were less likely to seek solace in chocolate or other junk food habits.

She said the evidence put forward in the paper was incomplete and that the public deserved more robust findings.

In March, the head of NHS said the health service is to offer cooking classes to fat families and send overweight doctors and nurses to Slimming World, in a radical attempt to tackle the country’s obesity crisis.

Simon Stevens said NHS staff needed to start “practising what we preach” and slim down their own waistlines, before tackling the nation's unhealthy lifestyles.

A new national programme will start by targeting 10,000 individuals at risk of Type 2 diabetes, which is closely linked to obesity.

Last year the NHS was accused of fuelling the obesity epidemic after a Telegraph investigation disclosed that dozens of fast food restaurants, coffee bars and shops are selling discounted chocolate at hospitals.

Medical experts urged the health service to “get its house in order” and clear its hospitals of junk food companies such as Burger King and Subway and coffee shops selling muffins and high-sugar drinks.

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