When BBC TV's Newsnight programme-makers presented new research on the link between the explosion of type 2 diabetes and the consumption of sugar they came to Public Service Events' conference Obesity – Tackling an Epidemic for an expert UK perspective.
Diabetes, a condition commonly linked directly to obesity, has a profound effect on millions of lives and its treatment costs the NHS an estimated £1.5m an hour. New research by US scientists, collating 10 years of data from 175 countries, finds that the more sugar there is in a population's diet the higher the incidence of diabetes.
From Stanford University medical school, California, Dr Sanjay Basu told Newsnight that the standard mantra was "that a calorie is a calorie, and if you take in more calories than you burn you will get obese and you will be at higher risk of diabetes. What we have been finding is that that may be a bit oversimplified".
Their research of international data indicates "that many people who aren't yet obese are also at high risk of diabetes, and many of the obese are not at high risk of diabetes . . . Obesity is the problem but the type of calories you eat may also be particularly pertinent to your diabetes risk, and sugar calories may be particularly concerning compared to other types of calorie".
US research shows that for each additional 150 kilocalories available per person per day relates to a rise in diabetes in the population of 0.1per cent. But if those kilocalories are sugar the prevalence of diabetes increases by 1.1 per cent.
One of the speakers at the Obesity conference in Manchester and a contributor to the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges' recent obesity report, Professor Simon Capewell, told Newsnight the Californian research was important because it "teases out the independent contribution of sugar so that we can look at the trend in diabetes, and they have been going up very steeply".
He said the assumption was that increased body weight, obesity, was the big factor in higher risks of diabetes and that sugar just makes a contribution to that. "This paper and other analyses now clearly show that sugar even by itself also independently increases diabetes."
Although diabetes is adding vast cost and service pressures on the NHS, Diabetes UK chief Dame Barbara Young fears that government and the health service "do not seem to have grasped the scale of the impending crisis and at the moment we seem to be sleepwalking towards it".
The conference Diabetes: A Call for Action on 23 April at Harrogate International Centre will examine the latest evidence and look at effective steps to reducing the risk of diabetes, improving condition management and meeting the challenge of developing national standards of good practice.
Speakers include Simon O'Neill, director of health intelligence at Diabetes UK; Professor Mike Kelly, director of the centre for public health excellence at NICE; diabetes specialist nurse Grace Vanterpool; Adrian Sanders MP, chairman of the diabetes parliamentary group; and Dr Martin Hadley, chairman of the Primary Care Diabetes Society.
A recent National Audit Office analysis has shown that 50 per cent of patients are still not receiving the checks set out in the national diabetes framework, and 80 per cent of the diabetes spend is allocated to treating resulting complications from diabetes such as stroke, amputations, blindness and kidney disease. What must change?
Most practitioners agree, healthy choices have to be easier choices. The Academy of Royal Medical Colleges is campaigning for effective food labelling, healthier hospital food, restrictions on junk food advertising, and a duty to be charged on sugary drinks, increasing the price by at least 20p. Professor Capewell told the Public Service Events' conference that this would lower demand in the way that tobacco and alcohol consumption had been cut.
There has been quite a loud squeal of protest from the food and drinks industry at this, he said. But it was not time for tokenistic approaches to improving people's life prospects.