Sugar and obesity is a global epidemic

Sugar and obesity correlate worldwide. Obesity has nearly tripled in the last 40 years with over 13% of adults obese and one in three overweight. The reason is an overabundance of calories, and a lot of them come from sugar.

There is no need for sugar and obesity to be together in the same sentence, let alone side by side. But here we are with an obesity epidemic on our hands and much of it concerns the majority responding to ubiquitous sugar.

Sugar is sweet, but too much sugar is bad for you. Grandma knew this, as did her grandma. 

We don’t listen to our elders much today, especially if they tell us to moderate our eating habits. Our deaf ears are partly because of the availability and easy access to delicious foods. There is sugar everywhere and in everything.

Global sugar cane production has quadrupled since the 1960s with Brazil alone producing over 600 million tonnes annually.

graph showing the tripling of global sugar production between 1960 and 2018

Production has grown even though the settled science tells us that consumption of processed sugar is known to contribute to growing rates of obesity and diabetes in Western society. 

For example, a review of multiple experimental studies of sugar and obesity found a significant association between sugar and artificially sweetened soda consumption and obesity (e.g. Ruanpeng 2016). But as with much diet-related health research, there is conjecture and confusion over the detail. In the case of sugar and obesity the strength of the association between sugar and health consequences is contentious (Stanhope 2016) partly because itis challenge to control for confounding factors.

One thing is clear.

Obesity numbers are acute

What is not in doubt are global counts for obesity, with World Health Organisation estimates for 2016 that include

  • more than 1.9 billion adults aged 18 years and older were overweight; of these, over 650 million were obese.
  • 39% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight.
  • 13% of the world’s adult population is obese.
  • Over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese.

This is bad enough, but the numbers for small children are worse. 

In 2019, an estimated 38.2 million children under the age of 5 years were overweight or obese. 

It is also not just a problem for mature economies.

In Africa, the number of overweight children under 5 has increased by nearly 24% since 2000. And almost half of the children under 5 who were overweight or obese in 2019 lived in Asia.

Obesity has the attributes of a pandemic.

man hilding the fat around his stomach to illustrate the correlation between sugar and obesity

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Obesity affects health

Non-communicable and lifestyle diseases are more likely in overweight and obese people including 

  • cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke)
  • diabetes
  • musculoskeletal disorders, especially osteoarthritis, a highly disabling degenerative disease of the joints
  • some cancers (including endometrial, breast, ovarian, prostate, liver, gallbladder, kidney, and colon)

Childhood obesity is associated with a higher chance of obesity, premature death and disability in adulthood. But in addition to increased future risks, obese children experience breathing difficulties, increased risk of fractures, hypertension, early markers of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and psychological effects.

Alright, so being overweight or obese is not healthy. 

It increases the risk of a host of preventable diseases that, on average, are known to reduce the quality of life and lifespan.

So what’s with sugar and obesity?

Eat more sugar

Here is what the Indian Sugar Mills association says about the product that is currently produced by its members at such levels in India that there is a glut in the market 

Sugar is the most preferred source of the body’s fuel for brain power, muscle energy and every natural process that goes into proper functioning of our body cells. The calories in sugar are the same as calories from any other food it’s only when calories are not burnt adequately or too many are consumed that body weight increases.

Indian Sugar Mills Association

Indians eat more sugar than any other nation in the world. However, per capita consumption of 19 kg per year is lower than the global average of 23 kilograms. 

Growth in per capita consumption in India between 2000-2016 was among the lowest in the world, partly due to social media campaigns discouraging people from eating sugar

This is a problem for Indian sugar producers when there are surpluses. Production costs are high, so shifting any surplus to sell in other countries is difficult without subsidy payments the government can’t afford. The solution the top bureaucrats in the food Ministry came up with to cut overseas sales and save export subsidies was to increase per capita consumption at home.

If we can’t afford to sell it overseas better to feed it to our people.

This is a classic case of global market forces creating perverse outcomes for individuals. If sugar consumption in India rises to the global average of 23 kg, it will increase rates of obesity and those overweight within the population, particularly among the young.

In other parts of the world, governments are taxing sugar, particularly for the young, and here we see a country looking to increase sugar intake.

Understanding global food security issues throw up any number of these conundrums. The market forces operating on sugar at this kind of scale are enormous. India is expected to produce and export a record 5.6 million tonnes in 2019/20 and 6 million tonnes in 2021

In other words, the production cycle is not going away, and the pressure to promote the product locally won’t either. 

What sustainably FED suggests 

Sugar and obesity is a classic pull-and-push problem. Pressure from demand—pull—increases supply until supply takes on a life of its own and influences demand—push. The result for India is political pressure to increase the consumption of food that will make folk unhealthy.

Market forces coupled with politics can make a mess of the best intentions.

Feeding everyone well has many of these conundrums. What works at one end of the supply chain might not at the other. 

One of the reasons we started sustainably FED and have posted extensively on the challenges of a sustainable diet, is to try and understand where the problems lie and how they can be solved for a sustainable future that includes healthy people.

The takeaway here is that being forced to put sugar and obesity together in a sentence is a caricature of the issues humanity faces in feeding everyone well under a market system.

Science sources

Ruanpeng, D., Thongprayoon, C., Cheungpasitporn, W., & Harindhanavudhi, T. (2017). Sugar and artificially sweetened beverages linked to obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 110(8), 513-520.

Stanhope, K. L. (2016). Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy. Critical reviews in clinical laboratory sciences, 53(1), 52-67.

Hero image modified from photo by Mathilde Langevin on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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