Written By: Thabo Molelekwa
Liquid sugar is easily absorbed, and most of the sugar from sweetened beverages has no nutritional value beyond the sugar content.
The fact that sugary drinks are a major cause of obesity and diabetes came into focus at the recent Cardio Vascular Disease Imbizo in Sandton, Johannesburg.
Speaking at the Imbizo Lynn Moeng Mahlangu, the cluster manager of Health Promotion and Nutrition at the National Department of Health, said that the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages or SSBs has strongly been linked with type 2 diabetes.
“In 2013 the Department of Health developed a strategy to tackle non-communicable diseases, and one of the keys was to reduce sugar intake by 10%,” she said.
Moeng Mahlangu said that South Africa is in the top three countries in Africa when it comes to people living with obesity.
She said one of the reasons for this is the high cost of healthy food.
“People choose healthy products because they are cheaper,” said Moeng Mahlangu.
“This is one of the debates we are having, involving other departments like agriculture,” she said.
“Our children are consuming 40-to-60 grams of sugar a day. This means their intake is between 100 and 200% more than they should,” she said.
Obesity in children
She said this was a dangerous situation as obese children generally tended to remain obese throughout life, and much of this was due to the consumption of sugary drinks.
According to Professor Karen Sliwa, director of the Hatter Institute for Cardiovascular Research in Africa and president-elect of the World Heart Federation, there is overwhelming data to confirm that a very high sugar intake has a negative impact on health.
“It is bad in many ways. It makes us obese, especially when we don’t move enough,” she said.
“You can develop diabetes, high blood pressure, you can develop heart disease or have a stroke,” said Sliwa, adding that these factors can lead to long periods of ill health or early death.
According to Sliwa, implementing a tax on sugar tax is one way of trying to combat this disease, as making SSBs more expensive would drive down consumption.
“By decreasing the amount of sugar in beverages we can address some of those issues,” she said, adding that a sugar tax alone was not enough to address the problem properly.
“Although the sugar beverage tax will hopefully show the same results experienced in other countries where it saw a decrease in obesity, the core issues around poverty still needed to be looked at,”said Sliwa.
She said it was important for government to take the lead and make South Africa one of the first countries in Africa to implement the tax.
Sliwa said that educating the people on healthy living was important.
“Some people don’t know that if you are short of breath it can mean that your heart is failing. People don’t know that there is no cure for diabetes and that you always have to take your medication,” she said.
Professor Liesl Zuhlke, President of the South African Heart Association said the health of children needed to be made a priority.
“If you are fat at 13 years, its possible that you will stay fat until you are old,” she said, explaining why children needed to be taught to make good choices for themselves.