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At the heart of general practice since 1960

A war against the white stuff

Dr Shaba Nabi

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It keeps us going when we’ve had another sleepless night with the kids. It’s a treat after a torturous day at work. It gives us a buzz when we’re out socialising. We think we’ve got it under control but we can’t seem to manage more than a day without it.

The white stuff in question is not cocaine, but something more addictive. It’s been surreptitiously force-fed to us our entire lives, resulting in a nation of addicts. Deaths from this addiction far outnumber deaths from other drugs, due to the complications of obesity and diabetes. Yet we continue to allow its presence in almost all food products, including our children’s.

From its origins in sugar cane stalks, to the 19th-century slave trade, the sugar industry is as powerful as the tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical industries once were. Which explains why no legislation has yet managed to reverse this contamination of our food.

So why my sudden interest?

When was the last time you questioned a patient with a mood disorder about their sugar consumption?

Because I felt I had to stick to at least one of my new year’s resolutions. But I didn’t appreciate just how difficult this would be. You see, sugar is everywhere and in everything. Children’s yoghurt has 12g of sugar. Even savoury food products contain it. A can of tomatoes has 16g, a tin of soup 20g.

Our tastebuds have become so accustomed to added sugar that we would reject our pasta sauces and ketchups if they didn’t have it. But even more disturbing is its unfettered addition to children’s food products. We are raising a population hooked on sugary drinks, cereals and ‘healthy’ snacks. So it was disappointing to read recent advice from Public Health England advising parents to stick to 100-calorie snacks for their children, implying all calories are equal. I would prefer my kids to snack on a 200-calorie bag of mixed nuts than a 100-calorie cereal bar laden with sugar.

Aside from diabetogenesis, sugar also has a negative impact on mental health. The continual spikes in blood sugar not only cause insulin resistance, but also lead to mood swings, depression and a worsening of menopausal symptoms. But when was the last time you questioned a patient with a mood disorder about their sugar consumption?

I guess you could call me an evangelist. Ever since I kicked my sugar habit, I have had a profound sense of calm and haven’t once shouted at the kids (another resolution). And the really encouraging news is that after a week, you stop craving it. Although reception is littered with post-Christmas chocolates, you stop viewing them as tempting treats and see them for what they are: a highly addictive foodstuff with zero nutritional value, linked with both mental and physical ill health.

So, in the battle against drugs, when are we going to tackle this one? When will the medical profession declare contaminating children’s food with sugar contravenes the GMC requirement to safeguard vulnerable patients? Until we exert our influence, the sugar industry will always place profits before health. It’s time GPs declared war on the white stuff.

When was the last time you asked a patient with a mood disorder about their sugar intake?

‘Medicine is missing the bigger picture’ - Big Interview with Dr Ranjan Chatterjee

Dr Shaba Nabi is a GP trainer in Bristol

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Readers' comments (12)

  • Just wondering if the author has heard of the role of glucose-6- phosphate in human cellular metabolism? Does it come from:
    a) your Twitter feed
    b) your high horse
    c) doughnuts

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  • I'm of the opinion that carbohydrates are far more of a health problem.

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  • Thank God, thought she was railing against white wine!

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  • Carbohydrates are the problem, because they all break down into simple sugars, allbeit at slight differing rates.Insulin resistance is the cause of the obesity epidemic, not fat.

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  • Shaba, I agree with you here.

    But the tin of tomatoes... are you saying that sugar has been added to the tin (which would surprise me), or were you just unaware that tomatoes naturally contain 2-3% sugar by weight?

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  • I took the decision to cut out sugar a few years ago. I don't think I overdid sugar, but I was someone that couldn't resist the Quality Streets on the nurse station on wards, or the call of the biscuit tin when doing the evening admin in the GP surgery. My first 2 weeks were really challenging, and it took about 8 weeks to be able to look at the cakes whilst at the Costa counter with [almost] indifference! However the pay back was worth it, with a sense of being liberated. And I would agree with the calmness Shaba. And tastes changed massively - peppers are now sweet!
    I'm a big believer in each to their own.
    Equally I think we need honesty over the risks of sugar, and the awareness that for many people sugar can be very addictive. I've found for some patients that wish to change their diet, discussing it as an addiction rather than 'willpower' makes a big difference.

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  • We GPs should be educating our patients re the toxic nature of sugar. One good simple start.....ask your patients what they eat for breakfast. If “cereals “ .....NO! Best brekkie is eggs, followed by porridge. I strongly suspect that sugar is causally linked with Alzheimer’s, inter alia.

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  • Not a chance.
    I need loads of sugar.
    There is a newsagents down the road which sells out of date 500g bars of chocolate and I have one a day. I have also just demolished a huge cylinder of jelly beans.
    And I'm slim.
    Go figure cardigans.

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  • With you on this. The last time I asked my patients about sugar intake was...... every day last week!!! Even I’m getting bored of hearing myself talk about ‘No sugar, low starchy carb, high healthy fats and protein, avoid packets and processed food’. Nearly every patient I see has a condition that could be improved with simple lifestyle change. #foodrevolutioniscoming

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  • I appreciate its anecdotal, but a good phrase for nutrition is “look at the blueprint”. If you put a lion in a zoo would you feed it sugar? No you’d look at the food it had evolved over millions of years to eat. Same for people

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