Obesity is a global health problem. The number of people who are obese is staggering, with more than 1.9 billion overweight people, and over 650 million who are obese in 2016. That number has tripled since 1975. In 2016, about 40 percent of all adults in the country, which accounts for approximately 93 million individuals, had obesity.
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With the growing epidemic of obesity today, a new study hints that it may stem from childhood sugar intake decades ago.
A team of researchers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville found that increasing obesity rates may have been driven by excess sugar intake during childhood. The study shows that sugar is a major causal factor in the obesity epidemic.
“While most public health studies focus on current behaviors and diets, we took a novel approach and looked at how the diets we consumed in our childhood affect obesity levels now that we are adults,” Alex Bentley, head of UT's Department of Anthropology and lead researcher of the study, said.
Increased childhood sugar intake tied to adult obesity
The researchers opted to explore the studies because despite there are population health studies invoked sugar as a major causal factor in the obesity problem today, only a few have explored if there is a delayed effect of childhood increased sugar consumption and increasing obesity rates.
To address the problem, the researchers point out that the increase of obesity rates can stem from a cumulative effect of increased sugar consumed over time. For instance, it is well-known that excess sugar intake is a contributor to both childhood and adult obesity. Though this a known fact, the theory had a drawback. In the 1990s, there was a decline of sugar consumption in the United States, and from there, obesity rates continued to soar even today.
Published in the journal Economics and Human Biology, the study highlights that eating high-sugar diets in childhood can have long-lasting effects. In fact, the researchers hint that the changes happening now in terms of adult obesity rates may have started with diets decades ago when the adults were just little kids.
High-sugar intake in the past
In the 1970s, popular foods emerged particularly infant foods that are extremely high in sugar content. Also, the sugar intake of women when they’re pregnant has been linked to an increase in adipose cells or fat cells in children.
There were no studies in the past that have studied the delay of obesity development from high sugar consumption in the past. To arrive at their findings, the researchers created a model mimicking the increase in U.S. adult obesity rates since the 1990s, taking into consideration the excess sugar intake measures from children in the 1970s, and 1980s.
Most of the sugar increase of intake before the year 2000 was from high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which became the main sweetener after 1970. It has been used in processed foods and sodas. In 1999, dubbed as the peak of sugar consumption, every individual in the country consumed about 60 pounds of HFCS, equivalent to more than 400 calories a day in excess sugars.
However, the consumption of sugar gradually declined from 2000 onwards. The team estimate that high sugar intake takes about a decade to see its effect.
The team aims to continue studying the area and examining the effect of sugary drinks and food items. In another study by Bentley and his team in 2018, they found a correlation between low income and high rates of obesity. They found the relationship between obesity rates and household income has increased steadily, from no correlation in 1990 to a very strong one in 2016.
Bentley, A., Ruck, D., Fouts, H. (2019). U.S. obesity as delayed effect of excess sugar. Economics and Human Biology. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1570677X19301364?via%3Dihub