Last week’s release of a global report on diabetes by the World Health Organisation (WHO) created a much needed focus and public debate about what could be described as a modern day epidemic. There are now four times more diabetics in the world than there was 30 years ago.

Diabetes is a serious, chronic disease that occurs either when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin (a hormone that regulates blood glucose), or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. Raised blood glucose, a common effect of uncontrolled diabetes, may, over time, lead to serious damage to the heart, blood vessels, eyes, kidneys and nerves. (WHO 2016)

  • 442 million people worldwide have diabetes
  • 1.5 million people died from diabetes in 2012
  • 90% have Type 2 diabetes (associated with modifiable lifestyle risk factors)
  • 280 Australians develop diabetes every day
  • 1.7 millions Australians have diabetes

These are pretty alarming statistics. The WHO report recommends that governments around the world fully fund programs to reduce the rates of diabetes and went as far to suggest using legislation and fiscal policies like a sugar tax to discourage the consumption of unhealthy foods.

The debate over a sugar tax became a heated one in the media with many people very vocal about their like or dislike for such policies. There is no doubt that we need sound public policies, public health programs and quality primary and secondary health, and a sugar tax could be one of many effective approaches.

But the one thing I think we desperately need is education programs and integrated health programs focusing on nutrition and lifestyle for prevention. Public health advertising campaigns are not enough. We need to take education into the classroom to help people understand the impact of food on their bodies and their health. We need GPs to work in an integrative way with other qualified health professionals, like myself, to help people change their eating and lifestyle habits to prevent them from developing diabetes.

I have always believed that education is the key to sustainable change and since starting my nutrition practice I have made education a focus and continually look for ways to provide education whether it be through my blog, newspaper column, workshops or work in the classroom at various schools.

Recently I wrote about ‘How much sugar is too much’ in The Hinterland Times and with lifestyle habits, like excessive sugar consumption, linked to the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, it is important to understand some of the basics when it comes to sugar.

All sugar, whether it is natural or processed, is a type of simple carbohydrate our bodies use for energy. Fruits, vegetables, pulses, grains and dairy foods contain natural sugars. One of the most important distinctions to make when assessing sugar intake is whether we are talking about added or natural sugar. Natural sugars are a healthier source of sugar because as a whole food they contain fibre, vitamins and minerals which all help to regulate the absorption of the sugar by the body. Added sugar provides kilojoules or calories but no essential nutrients and is found in processed foods and drinks like breads, yoghurts, sports drinks, tinned food, breakfast cereals and even so called health foods. Low fat foods generally have sugar added as well!

Added sugar comes as regular table sugar (sucrose) but also includes the natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, agave, rice malt syrup, molasses and coconut sugar. While these natural sweeteners contain nutrients like iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, and are a healthier option to use in cooking, they are still sugar.

So if our bodies need sugar what’s the problem? It’s the excessive amount of added sugar that is linked to ill health. For optimum health, the WHO recommends that we should not consume more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day but Australians are, on average, consuming more than 27 teaspoons of sugars a day.

My advice is to avoid or minimise processed foods like soft drinks, fruit juices, commercial baked goods, low fat and fast foods, and use natural sweeteners sparingly in your home cooking.

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