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The medical cost of our sugar addiction

The medical cost of our sugar addiction

Sugar is linked to a host of the most serious medical conditions across the world

After many years of public awareness campaigns and damning reports, it seems the notion that sugar is incredibly bad for us has finally started to dawn on people. Well, some people at least. While not quite impacting the masses as it should, I have certainly noticed more and more people forgoing sugar in their coffee or actively avoiding soda and pastries in favour of healthy alternatives.

That said, I think very few among us truly know what we are doing to our bodies when we ingest sugar to the level that most of us do. And to get some specifics on those levels, consider that 500 ml of that store-bought fruit juice can contain upwards of 60 grams of sugar, a Starbucks mocha can contain more than 70 grams, and a single “healthy” bowl of muesli (depending on the brand) can contain upwards of 20 grams.

To quickly put that in perspective, some of the leading physicians that Willis works with suggest that if we must eat sugar at all (and we really do not need to!), then we humans should take in no more than 30-40 grams per day.

What sugar does to our bodies

Dubai-based American and South African physician Dr. Graham Simpson has a tremendous appreciation for how our diets impact our health, and one of his main tasks with most of his first-time clients is to get them to reduce or eliminate their sugar intake.

Dr. Simpson says our Western diet is literally killing us. And that’s because those sugars and grains and processed foods that most of us consume daily lead to constantly elevated blood glucose levels, which in turn lead to chronically high insulin levels in our bodies.

Insulin, produced in the pancreas, is what pushes sugar into our cells so it can be used for energy. But our bodies cannot deal with the amount of sugar we are consuming daily, and the strain of those chronically high insulin levels eventually starts to cause wear and tear to the 50,000 miles of blood vessels that run through our body.

Again, a tremendous amount of research has been done and continues to be done around this topic, and what we are seeing is that sugar is linked to a host of the most serious medical conditions we are witnessing in many countries around the world, including overweight and obesity, cancer, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and more.

The high cost of sugar

To highlight just how much of the blame can be laid at sugar’s door, many have tried to work out the literal cost of the sugar problem – resulting in some very powerful studies.

One such study carried out back in 2013 by financial services company Credit Suisse looked at both the human and financial cost of sugar. Their findings revealed that some 30-40 per cent of healthcare expenditure in the United States goes towards issues closely tied to the excess consumption of sugar. With a healthcare spend of about $3 trillion annually, that’s a $1 trillion sugar cost.

This is hardly surprising when we consider that the American healthcare system in 2012 spent over $245bn alone on costs associated with diabetes (up from $174bn in 2007).

Nutritional advice in the workplace

Should corporations be doing something here? Of course they should. As most people spend around a third of their week at work, and employers are footing a large part of their employees’ medical bills, businesses have a duty on both the human front and the financial front to help their employees see the bigger picture and take necessary action.

So where to start? I would suggest it is all about education initially. We can babysit our employees as much as we want by ensuring our pantries are stocked up with healthy alternatives, but how far is that going to take us? Unless the employees themselves see the real picture and start to believe it, eating habits won’t change.

And so a structured and consistent approach to nutritional education is needed. If we are not going to get it in our schools as children, then we have to get it in the real world as adults.

Those corporations that commit to the long term here and find educational solutions that actually bring about better eating among their staff will realise significant savings in time.

Beyond that, sure, make it easier for your employees to get healthy meals in the workplace. For example, have agreements with restaurants in your area whereby you subsidise certain meals on their menus that are deemed to be in the “healthy” category.

Finally, “accountability” is not a four-letter word. If you are paying for your employees’ medical coverage, then why not hold them to task when it comes to living healthier? As one of my colleagues recently wrote in an article for Gulf Business, a tougher stance towards your employees is what is needed. Set “getting healthier” targets and measure results.

Read: Why UAE firms must take a tougher stance on employees’ health

All the medicines in the world will not help us win the war on sugar. And on that point we can circle back round to our cigarette reference to say that this one is best addressed through abstinence and not compromise. That is, smoke a few cigarettes a day and you are perhaps less healthy than the person smoking a pack a day, but you are still unhealthy. And same goes for sugar, in that a little every day still goes a long way in causing a great amount of damage over the years. In that sense, the comparison between these two “bad habits” is a logical one indeed.

Carole Khalife is head of Human Capital and Benefits at Al Futtaim Willis

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