Kirsti: During my invasive ant research in the Pacific islands, I lived and worked in a country called Tokelau. It’s an external territory of New Zealand, but essentially a self-governing Polynesian nation. It is literally the smallest nation in the world by land area, the population living on small atoll islets in some cases only 80m wide.
In this nation, there were certainly some fascinating and rather nasty ants that compromised the fabulous outdoor Polynesian lifestyle. But I also noticed other stuff. Like the fact that the mouths of many kids were full of little black spikes for teeth. Seriously. Seven year olds who had been given soft drinks since the age of 1 or 2 had nothing but rotted remains of baby teeth.
It made me think about soft drinks in our diet and I vowed from that day forth that if I were ever to have kids, soft drink was OFF the menu.
Rotting teeth are not the only disastrous outcome of soft drink consumption. From around the 1970’s, sweetened drinks – especially softies – have contained high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as the sweetener of choice (it’s cheaper than glucose alone). The syrup typically contains either 42% or 55% fructose, the remainder made up of glucose. And the proportion of fructose has increased slowly over time.
Now fructose has enjoyed media attention in the past few years because of the rising number of people with fructose malabsorption issues and hereditary fructose intolerances. Irritable bowel syndrome (often thought of as the equivalent of colic for adults!) is also sometimes diagnosed as fructose malabsorption because of such similar symptoms. Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar! website and associated books as well as the rethink sugary drink campaign have labelled sugar as poison. More recently, Dr Kieron Rooney at University of Sydney has declared that Big Sugar is having its tobacco moment.
Even if you don’t have any real problem absorbing or metabolising fructose, it’s clear that if you do drink a lot of soft drink, you are at risk of a suite of lifestyle diseases. Obesity, type II diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and more.
Fructose is metabolised differently to glucose. Where metabolism of glucose is regulated by insulin, the metabolism of fructose in the liver is essentially unregulated, progressing through a number of steps to a point where carbon atoms can be converted to fatty acids in your liver. More fatty acids means increased risk of liver disease and then risk factors for all of the diseases mentioned above. Healthy levels of fructose are beneficial in that they can assist in the disposal of glucose in the liver.
Here’s where I will emphasise that it’s only when you drink A LOT of soft drinks and eat artificially sweetened food that you are at risk. But we know that this is happening for more and more people in Australia. Current estimates of obesity in Australia suggest that 28% of Australian adults over 18 are obese and that, including these obese adults, 63% are overweight.
It seems ironic and incredibly wasteful that the wealth present in Western societies is associated with inducing these lifestyle diseases, and then even more wealth is required to manage and treat those affected. Yes, we should learn more about treating diabetes. I agree it’s a good idea. But surely we can do more with prevention? Can’t we all talk about this, and start to help each other avoid these situations?
Please do it now. Whether it be family, friend or colleague. Give them a buzz and go for a water and a carrot stick. Let me know how it goes.
[image thanks to Elsie esq. on Flickr]