Being overweight used to signify wealth. In ancient times, plumpness in women was seen as a sign of fertility and idols representing their form were worshiped. To this day, many cultures have a preference for larger women and older generations prefer their grandchildren to be a bit chubby.
This might reflect how ancient people lived in environments where hunger and scarcity was the norm. The need for food is just as important as the need for reproduction to sustain humankind.
Fat-rich foods and foods containing sugar that are speedily converted into energy have long been imprinted in the memories and genes of humankind to such an extent that it is safe to say all children like sweets.
Before the 20th century, obese people made up a small percentage of the world’s population. Among 19th-century photographs of people in Taiwan, it is difficult to find obesity. Today, however, almost 50 percent of people in the Hualien and Taitung areas are overweight or obese, and the proportion of obese people in Taiwan’s Aboriginal communities — about 65 percent — is almost as high as in the US.
The main reason for obesity is the intake of too many calories. A decade ago, Americans consumed an average of 3,754 calories per day, but in 1960, each person only consumed an average of 2,200 calories per day. In the past 50 years, caloric intake in the US has increased by 70 percent and an excessive intake of calories has seen obesity spread across the globe. Carbohydrates, rather than fats, have been responsible for the majority of this increased calorie intake.
The main source of carbohydrates is sugared drinks, and the scariest thing about these drinks is that they account for 25 percent of young people’s daily caloric intake. Other fattening foods, like French fries, also account for a frightening proportion of their caloric intake.
Doctors and dieticians believe the consumption of too many sugared drinks to be the main culprit behind obesity today. However, with the way our current culinary culture places an emphasis on large portions, all-you-can-eat buffets and fast-food joints on every street corner, changing people’s diets will be difficult.
More people now regard sugar as a poison. Professor Robert Lustig of the University of San Francisco is one of the main promoters of this idea. He has said that sugar does the same amount of harm to the human body as alcohol and nicotine, and the cost of treating obesity and its impact on people’s health is much higher and more wide-ranging than for alcohol and nicotine abuse.
The public is aware of the dangers of alcohol and nicotine addiction, but most people, including medical service and healthcare providers, remain ignorant about the potential harms of sugar.
Before and after his recent death, the Facebook page of toxicologist Lin Chieh-liang (林杰樑) has had information about sugar being equal to poison posted on it by his family. Unfortunately Lin is no longer with us and other experts and doctors may not have the insight or influence needed to carry on Lin’s work.
People today understand that being addicted to alcohol can cause liver disease and cirrhosis, and that addiction to nicotine can cause emphysema and lung cancer. However, they lack knowledge about the addictive nature of sugar, not to mention the view that sugar is poison. The food we eat every day has large amounts of sugar put into it by manufacturers. People are unaware of this and seem unable to break their addictions to sugar.
In the long term, people will pay with their health through problems such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, sleep apnea, strokes, gallbladder disease, liver disease, osteoarthritis, infertility, endometrial cancer, bowel cancer, breast cancer, thrombosis, poor wound healing, high cholesterol and hardening of the arteries.
Taiwan has joined the world of obesity and present generations will find that there is a high likelihood that their life expectancy will be shorter than that of their parents — which will be a first in history.
Health and education authorities must release the truth about sugar, come up with effective responses, educate the public about foods containing sugar and show people how the sugar that is hidden in various foods is poisoning their health and how the huge costs of dealing with this are reflected in our National Health Insurance premiums.
Being overweight no longer symbolizes wealth and fertility; the damage, pain and loss it causes is something that will continue to spread if nothing is done.
Chiang Sheng is an attending physician in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mackay Memorial Hospital.
Translated by Drew Cameron