Why we need research to understand the consequences of dietary intake of free sugars (sucrose)

Excess consumption of food with high calorific content is associated with weight gain and a range of related health conditions, including increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and some cancers. Obesity and related health problems are a major health concern at national (UK) and international levels, leading not just to poorer health in the population but also to increasing costs of providing necessary health care. There is therefore an immediate need to address these issues in policy and practice.

However, over many years the links between intake of sugars and health outcomes was poorly understood. In particular, there was lack of consensus as to whether excess consumption of sugar would inevitably lead to weight gain and other problems. Whereas, many suggested that there was such a link, others argued that individuals who consumed excess amounts of sugar potentially might reduce calorie intake in other foods in their diets to avoid weight gain.

Better understanding was needed as to whether individuals did alter other parts of their diets to avoid weight gain, or if energy intake from sugar was added to other dietary energy intake leading to weight gain and the risks that go with that. This understanding was required for policy-makers to produce policy and practice to improve public health.

Previous research had identified links between excessive daily energy intake and overweight / obesity. QMU research examined the eating behaviour of overweight and obese women in response to dietary intake of free sugars. Their findings were included in evidence that indicated that excess consumption of free sugar led to increase in daily energy intake and consequent risks of overweight / obesity. 

These findings were included in the evidence base for a systematic review of studies of the relationship between consumption of dietary carbohydrates and health, conducted for The Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health (England). They were also included in the evidence base for a review conducted for the World Health Organization (WHO) Department of Nutrition for Health and Development. In each case, the review led to development of policy guidelines that aimed to reduce the daily consumption of free sugars (sucrose) for adults and children. 

Queen Margaret University’s research identified a link between intake of free sugar and daily energy intake, suggesting that excessive daily intake of free sugar leads to an increase in daily energy intake with the subsequent risks of weight gain/obesity.

These findings were included in evidence presented to The Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health (England) and to the World Health Organization (WHO) on links between sugar intake and weight gain. This evidence is being used to inform policy guidelines relating to dietary intake for these and other organisations, including the Scottish Government. 

  1. Findings from the QMU research were included in the evidence base for a systematic review of studies of the relationship between consumption of dietary carbohydrates and health, conducted for The Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health (England).  Based on this review, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recommended that  

    (a) for those aged 2 years and above, intake of free sugars should not exceed 5% of total dietary energy, and

    (b)
    consumption of sugars-sweetened beverages should be minimized in children and adults. 
  1. These SACN recommendations have been taken up widely. They have been included in the dietary advice provided by all UK health departments, incorporated into the healthy eating advice given to consumers, and led Public Health England to produce policy responses to implement the recommendations. 
  2. The SACN report led to the UK Government producing ‘A Plan for Action’ involving the public sector, schools, early years settings, families, and elsewhere to reduce significantly England’s rate of childhood obesity over a ten year period. On 2 January 2018, Public Health England launched its ‘Change4Life campaign’ that encourages parents to look for ‘100 calorie snacks, two a day max’ to limit their children’s daily intake of free sugars.
  3. The SACN report led to the Scottish Government producing ‘Revised Dietary Goals for Scotland’ and the Welsh Government producing a best practice guideline ‘Food & Nutrition for Childcare Settings’. 
  4. Findings from the QMU research were also included in a systematic review of evidence conducted for the World Health Organization (WHO) Department of Nutrition for Health and Development.  This review led to a WHO guideline, ‘Sugars intake for adults and children’. That guideline recommends:

(a) a reduced intake of free sugars throughout the lifecourse; 

(b) reducing the intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake, for adults and children, and; 

(c) a further reduction of the intake of free sugars to below 5% of total energy intake.  

 

This guideline will inform the development of policy and practice relating to dietary intake across the globe, helping ‘Member States and their partners in making informed decisions about nutrition policies, programmes and interventions. 

Academics involved in leading/contributing to this research:

  • Professor Marie Reid, Professor of Health Psychology, QMU 2006 – 2011 
  • Dr Maresa Duffy, Research Fellow, QMU 2006 – 2009 

Research and Knowledge Exchange Development Unit

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Research and Knowledge Exchange Development Unit

Kim Stuart Head of Research and Knowledge Exchange Development Unit 0131 474 0000
RKE - Vivian Rutherford Research and Knowledge Exchange Officer 0131 474 0000