Carbohydrates and obesity: from evidence to policy in the UK

bowl of sugar granules and bowl of sugar cubes

This month’s featured paper is from Proceedings of the Nutrition Society and is entitled 'Carbohydrates and obesity: from evidence to policy in the UK'.

Carbohydrates provide the major source of energy in the diet and hence the type and amount of carbohydrate consumed is an important consideration for weight control. Recent risk assessments have shown that there is no consistent association between the proportions of energy consumed as carbohydrate and body weight and reinforce the dominance of total energy intake as the primary determinant of body weight. However, they have highlighted evidence that different types of carbohydrate have specific effects on the risk of obesity.

Short-term experimental studies suggest that some types of dietary fibre may be linked to increased satiation and cohort studies are supportive of an association between low intakes of fibre-rich, whole-grain foods and weight gain. But these observations are not supported by evidence of effects on body weight in randomised controlled trials, suggesting that high-fibre or whole-grain intake may simply be a marker of a broader dietary pattern.

Recent attention has focused on the growing evidence of a positive association between the intake of free sugars and weight gain and particularly the risks linked to consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB). Given the high population-level intake of free sugars the challenge is to identify actions that will successfully reduce consumption to contribute to reductions in the prevalence of obesity.

The present paper considers the range of policy options available, using the Nuffield ladder of intervention to provide a framework for risk management, with a focus on the consumption of SSB.

Current policy interventions are largely based around consumer education and encouragement to industry to renovate products to reduce the sugar content of food and drinks and/or reduce portion size, but dietary change has been slow. Further measures, including the use of specific incentives/disincentives may be needed to change consumption patterns, some of which may infringe personal or commercial freedom. For these policies to be implemented will require sustained efforts to create a climate in which such interventions are acceptable or even welcomed by society as an appropriate protection against obesity and other diet-related ill health.

Professor Susan Jebb

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