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Battle of the Bulge: Sugar Fueling the Obesity Epidemic

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First Posted: Jun 21, 2012 01:01 PM EDT
A 64-ounce drink is displayed alongside other soft drink cup sizes at a news conference at City Hall in New York, May 31, 2012. Under a new law proposed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, all soft drinks over 16 ounces will be banned in restaurants and stores that fall under the jurisdiction of New York City. The proposed law is a part of the mayor's Obesity Task Force initiative and is aimed at lowering city-wide obesity.

A 64-ounce drink is displayed alongside other soft drink cup sizes at a news conference at City Hall in New York, May 31, 2012. Under a new law proposed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, all soft drinks over 16 ounces will be banned in restaurants and stores that fall under the jurisdiction of New York City. The proposed law is a part of the mayor's Obesity Task Force initiative and is aimed at lowering city-wide obesity. Credit:Reuters

We as a society are getting larger and larger, specifically our waistlines. Rates of overweight and obese people have skyrocketed in the past 50 years. Obesity in first world countries by and large stands well above 10%, with the United States now above 30%, and the trend shows no signs of slowing down.

Yet what's more troubling about this is that recent studies (including a 2009 Early Bird Study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood) have shown that physical activity (or lack thereof) is not contributing to obesity (in children), as many people are quick to assume.

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So why are we getting so fat? Are we eating that poorly compared to past generations? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn't seem to think so. Their findings showed that fruit and vegetable consumption were actually higher in 2000 than they were in 1970. Other studies have shown no concrete link between fast food consumption and obesity.

So why all the jumbo-sized humans? Are we simply eating that much more food than we collectively did years ago? That is certainly part of the problem, and we can thank the overproduction of corn and soybeans in particular, which have since given rise to an abundance of unhealthy processed foods derived from them, at subsidized prices.

Chief among them is High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which has become a staple of the food industry. You're probably aware of its existence in soft drinks, but that's hardly the extent to which HFCS has taken up root in our food. You can find it in everything from bread, cereal, and dairy products, to soups, canned fruit, and salad dressings.

And finally, the public and the politicians who govern them seem to be catching on to what Professor John Yudkin had been preaching back in the 1970's, at the dawn of our increasing sugar consumption and resulting rise in heart disease; that sugar was to blame, not fat. This became apparent in the years that followed as the food industry flooded the market with low-fat products that did nothing to curb the growing problem of growing fat.

Concerted efforts are now being made to raise public awareness about HFCS, and to limit its exposure. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently proposed a city-wide ban on super-sized sodas, while Disney will remove all advertising from their channel that doesn't meet nutritional guidelines.

Growing public awareness of the dangers of HFCS even prompted the Corn Refiners Association to attempt to have HFCS rebranded as Corn Sugar, a plea that was recently struck down by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The trend of our burgeoning body masses is troubling for a number of reasons, not the least of which was hinted at in a recent research paper published in the journal BMC Public Health, which aptly surmises that overeating and obesity are as much of a strain on the world's resources as overpopulation, the most commonly cited concern related to future global food supply.

It's clear that the fight against obesity will be a long and hard battle, and one that has only just begun in earnest. Finally, it appears we have the right target in our crosshairs to combat the epidemic; sugar, and in particular, HFCS. How willing we are as a society to limit our intake of this potentially deadly yet addictive substance will be telling as to whether we can win the fight, or will succumb to its sweet embrace.

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