Communicating the role of sugar in the obesity epidemic

Obesity is a global epidemic that impacts all people—either directly or indirectly—regardless of race, gender or nationality. Through the lens of a health care communications pro in the UK, TogoRun UK’s Jessica Greenman weighs in with her perspective.

With an impending obesity epidemic casting a dark cloud of financial doom over Europe, new figures report that by 2050, the obesity problem could cost the UK approximately £50 billion a year. The epidemic is becoming a regular feature in the tabloids, and more recently, sugar has been targeted as one of the main contributors to our overweight nation. So in the midst of the crisis, what measures can be put in place to avert such a catastrophe?


In recent months, efforts have been initiated to curb the sugar problemincluding Action on Sugar, a new group lobbying the government and food industry to reduce the hidden or “unnecessary” sugars found in processed foods. The group is calling for food and drink manufacturers to re-size their products, offering smaller portions of foods that contain high levels of sugar. Activists believe that these suggested cuts could halt or reverse the growing obesity epidemic in less than five years and reduce the risk of patients developing type 2 diabetes; a common comorbidity of obesity and a substantial drain on National Health Service (NHS) funds.

Campaigners have also made claims that sugar is even more of an issue than another health care crisis: smoking. However, unlike sugar, tobacco is not added into processed foods and consumed by the overwhelming majority of the population. Smoking is a choice, whilst many people are unaware of the level of added sugar in the foods they are eating.

In March, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced new sugar intake recommendations. The guidance indicated that sugar should make up no more than 10 percent of our total daily calorie intake, and limiting sugar intake further (to 5 percent) could offer additional health benefits. To give some perspective, drinking one can of full calorie soda would exceed this 10 percent daily limit.

Even if measures are taken to reduce the levels of hidden sugars, foods such as cakes and chocolate candy still contain very obvious, unhidden sugars. So, how do we encourage people to stop eating these sorts of snacks? Or rather, is promoting moderation the key? With whatever direction we choose, it is imperative that communications professionals partner with policy makers to combat this rising epidemic.

As in the case of smoking, public health campaigns played a key role in educating the public about the dangers of tobacco. In 2012, the NHS launched the Stoptober campaign, which encouraged smokers to go smoke free for 28 days throughout October. Participants were provided with a ‘quit kit,’ as well as encouraging text messages each day. The campaign was so successful that it continued through 2013, where a quarter of a million people in England and Wales registered to take part in the challenge. In parallel, the NHS also launched Mutation, a more hard-hitting campaign in 2012.  The campaign dramatised the harms of smoking by making the invisible visible, showing a tumour growing from a cigarette. The advertising achieved awareness of 92 percentthe highest for any smoke free campaign in five years and the commercial was viewed more than four million times on YouTube. It was also recorded that:

  • 41 percent of people that saw the commercial were more likely to quit smoking
  • 61 percent agreed that the commercials made them realize that every cigarette is harmful

Clearly high levels of sugar in foods are posing a significant risk to our health, but can we really talk about sugar the same way we talk about tobacco? Critics argue that we should not draw comparisons because in moderation, sugar makes up part of a healthy and balanced diet, whilst tobacco is a proven poison that offers no health or dietary benefits. If consumed as part of a healthy and informed diet, then sugar should not pose any problems to our health.

Currently, action groups, such as the Children’s Food Campaign are lobbying for a tax on sugar found in food and drink, and England’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies, has shown her support for the campaign, suggesting it would help to combat obesity. That said, the government seems disinclined to use food taxes as a way to combat unhealthy eating habits.

Whatever the direction, we must address the rising number of people that are not making informed decisions about their diets. Changing policy and taxing sugar like tobacco seems like an extreme measure that doesn’t necessarily halt or reverse the impending epidemic. In order to create true behavior change, we must couple any changes in policy with a well-constructed, public campaign that highlights the underlying damage being caused by sugar, and encourages individuals to make informed decisions about the foods they decide to eat.

From a communications perspective, it is imperative that the government and advocacy communities’ work together to form a public/private partnership that communicates the merits of the policy and provides education and awareness around this important health issue.