Here's What Non-Stop Sugar is Doing to Us

Photo by Analia Baggiano via Unsplash

Photo by Analia Baggiano via Unsplash

When even the most mundane errand becomes a sugar consumption opportunity, we are a country in trouble.

Over the past few months I've become keenly aware of the candy bowls and treat baskets that dot the commerical landscape.

My wake-up call began the day I took my car in for service. I poured myself a tall cup of coffee in the customer lounge. Then I noticed the donut holes and granola bars. "Why do we need sugary treats to make it through an oil change?" I wondered. An hour later my car was ready. When I went to pay, the cashier offered me a big, juicy apple to take along. Because, evidently, donut holes and granola bars are not enough. Customers might need an additional infusion of carbs just to make it from the cashier to the parking lot.

Ever since that day I have been on the lookout for businesses peddling a sugar fix along with their merchandise or services. The dry cleaner is doing it. The financial planner is doing it. At a book fair last fall every single publisher and book seller had a dish of candy or treats at their table. 'Treats' used to be foods that were special because you ate them only now and then. Today? 'Treats' are now and now and now. On a day of errands you can knock off half a dozen treats before noon.

In case you haven't noticed we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Over one-third of US adults are obese, not to mention those that are just overweight. Take a look around you. Once upon a time, the obese person was the exception. Now the lean person is. Look back at photos and films from the fifties and sixties to see how much things have changed. Peruse vintage clothing from that era. A size ten will seem tiny compared to our generously sized, relaxed fit fashion. Notice the amply-proportioned mannequins turning up in many stores. A sea change, and not a good one.

Please don't say I am fat-shaming. I'm not. Fat is not shameful. Fat is dangerous and there are mountains of data to bear that out. Although I'm formerly a registered dietitian, you don't need a medical background to understand the scope of the problem. The data speaks for itself.

Diabetes has skyrocketed along with obesity. In 1958, when obesity rates were far lower, less than 1% of Americans were diagnosed diabetic. By 2015, that number rose to 7.4% of the US population. The Center for Disease Control estimates that as many as 7 million more people are undiagnosed diabetics. Some 84 million are prediabetic, a condition that can lead to Type 2 diabetes if left untreated.

The CDC projects that as many as 1 in 3 Americans could be diabetic by 2050. That means that in the span of 100 years the percentage of diabetics could go from less than 1% to as much as 33%.

Most alarming of all is the rise in Type 2 diabetes among children and teens, coinciding with the increase in childhood obesity. Type 2 diabetes in kids was almost unheard of before 1980.

Diabetes can lead to devastating health consequences, among them blindness, kidney failure, and leg and foot amputations.

There's more. Evidence is mounting of a relationship between high sugar diets, high blood sugar, and dementia. One recently published, longitudinal study found a faster rate of cognitive decline among people with high blood sugar compared to those whose blood sugar was normal. The study even showed an association between pre-diabetes and cognitive decline.

Perhaps the widespread prevalence of diabetes will lull us into seeing it as less harmful than it is. Maybe the prospect of dementia feels too many decades away to worry about. Well, there's always cancer, unique in it's ability to scare the daylights out of you.

According to the National Cancer Institute there is consistent evidence that obesity is associated with an increased risk of a number of cancers. One of those is breast cancer. Which brings me to the tipping point that propelled me to write this essay.

Recently I went to one of Minnesota's top facilities for an annual mammogram. Guess what greeted me in the waiting room? A big old dish of candy. Because even having a mammogram has become a sugar-dosing opportunity.

What made this so infuriating is that I expect health care providers to lead by example, rather than blindly follow harmful social trends.

Solving our obesity problem requires us to change behaviors that have become part of our cultural landscape. Human beings were not designed to consume donuts as big as your head or restaurant portions that could feed a family. And we are not built to consume sweets, treats, and candy every day, much less multiple times a day. But we are a nation hooked on sugar, and the opiod-like stimulation of the brain it produces.

Where to begin? Well, how about getting rid of those candy dishes? Sound harsh? Then try this thought experiment. Imagine that the car repair shop, the dry cleaners, the cute boutique, and even the mammogram center have bowls of free cigarettes and matches on the counter.

The idea is preposterous, but only because we now understand smoking's danger and take it seriously. It's time we regard the non-stop consumption of sugar as the danger that it is.