Sensible Public Health or Sugar Shaming?

A new solution for obesity, proposed by Michael Goran and Emily Ventura, is floating through the opinion pages of newspapers all over the world. They say that we should wake up to risks of “secondhand sugars” for infants and young children. If we see a pregnant woman drink a soda, we should worry for the unborn child. Does this pass for sensible public health advocacy?

Explaining their views, they say:

Certain types of sugar – especially fructose and artificial sweeteners, which have dramatically increased in our diet within the last generation – are particularly damaging the during critical periods of growth and development in children.

The evidence to support their claims comes mostly from animal studies and correlations. Those correlations don’t support bold statements about cause and effect.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Clementine Ford rejects the moralizing of Goran and Ventura. She says:

I take exception to the tone of judgement that accompanies the piece. A fetus is already the property of everyone but the person carrying it, and this just contributes to that narrative.

Pregnancy is hard and it’s made much harder by the fact that everybody feels not only entitled to their opinion but also to their input. And that’s before you even consider indicators of other oppressions like poverty, race or disability. It needs to stop. The only people who have the right to discuss any elements of a pregnancy are the person carrying it and their health care providers.

Count us in agreement with Ford. No doubt, excess sugar is a threat to health. But hyperbolic fear mongering is a threat to the credibility of nutrition research. And many more factors contribute to the risk of obesity. Sugar is not the whole story.

Most importantly, people who are concerned about unborn children should pay attention to the big picture. Huge social and economic disparities do great harm to children. And those disparities add to the risk of a poor diet. They add to the risk of obesity.

Earnest work to reduce disparities might do more to help those children than fear mongering about sugar.

Click here for the views of Goran and Ventura and here for more from Ford. For more on disparities, obesity, and health, click here, here, here, and here.

Expecting, photograph © Alick Sung / flickr

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February 6, 2016

3 Responses to “Sensible Public Health or Sugar Shaming?”

  1. February 06, 2017 at 12:11 pm, Allen Browne said:

    Yup. The kids suffer from the macro environment and the local environment. The bad news is that we need to work on all fronts. Social and economic disparities are very bad – but not the whole story. Obesity is an equal opportunity disease.

    We are usually very poor at simplifying a complex problem and this is a classic example. Simplifying is so attractive and the patients are so vulnerable. But, we have come a long ways, baby!

    • February 06, 2017 at 4:04 pm, Ted said:

      Good point, Allen. Thanks!

  2. February 07, 2017 at 10:49 am, David Brown said:

    To paraphrase Dr. Samuel Johnson: The goal of education is discernment, the ability to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit.

    People need accurate information about how food choices affect their health, not shaming. Everyone I meet wants to be healthy. However, not everyone I meet is willing to invest the time and effort required to develop discernment. That is why it is crucial the expert opinion be correct.

    Here’s an example of ordinary people, out of great need, discovering the truth about fats through trial and error. http://www.denverpost.com/2017/02/05/colorado-jacksons-honest-chips-family-story/