On a recent visit to Newham, home of London’s Olympic village, I was shocked to learn that in the past 10 years the incidence of diabetes there has more than doubled.
Dr Chandra Gowda, a local GP, told me that nowadays 40%-50% of all consultations in his practice are either a new diagnosis of diabetes or its complications, such as heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure.
He believes this surge is directly related to the diet of the local population:
“There is overproliferation of fast food restaurants in the area and it’s almost every second shop,” he said.
The scale of obesity and diet-related disease around the world is alarming. According to the United Nations, diet-related diseases such heart disease, diabetes and cancer pose the greatest global threat to our health; contributing to a staggering 35 million deaths per year, dwarfing the six to eight million smoking-related deaths each year.
Without effective intervention this figure could affect 90% of the UK population by 2050 and cost the NHS and the tax payer £45bn a year.
Unless we get a grip of this public health emergency I believe it will cripple the NHS as we know it.
So what is the biggest culprit?
More and more evidence is emerging that it is sugars, more specifically High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which is added to almost all processed food.
Earlier this year, paediatric endocrinologist Dr Robert Lustig published a paper in Nature stating that sugar consumption has trebled worldwide in the past 50 years and is so damaging to our health that it should be regulated like alcohol.
“[It has] no essential fats, no proteins, no vitamins, no minerals. It is unique in that respect,” she says.
A little is not a problem, but a lot kills, slowly. And since it is added to nearly all processed food, it is extremely difficult to avoid.
We should all be concerned about the processed food that we are eating as 40% of those who develop the metabolic syndrome of diabetes, high blood pressure and fatty liver disease will be of normal weight.
As a cardiologist I treat heart disease on a daily basis. At the Royal Free Hospital in London we have one of the fastest treatment times for heart attacks in the UK.
The NHS has made tremendous improvements in providing this type of care to the majority of the population 24-hours-a-day; that is if you are lucky enough to make it to hospital alive – approximately 40% of heart attack patients do not.
But, having seen the unspeakable suffering caused by diet-related diseases, I would much rather these patients did not develop them in the first place.
Of course the Olympic sponsors cannot be held accountable for Britain’s poor health, but their connection with the Games sends a dreadful message.
In the context of an obesity epidemic I find it obscene that the Olympics chooses to associate itself with fast food, sugary drinks, chocolate and alcohol.
Labour shadow minister for public health Diane Abbott, whose constituency is in East London close to the Olympic village, is equally scathing:
“I think it’s quite shocking that McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Cadbury’s, and Heineken are the main food sponsors,” she says.
“These are products which are all very well as a treat, but what Olympic sponsorship allows them to do is promote their brand and insinuate themselves into people’s daily diet.”
Impact on children
I also believe it is wrong for sporting role models to endorse junk food such as sugary drinks, chocolate and crisps. Of particular concern is the negative impact this has on our children.
And it is naive and ignorant of sports men and women to blame obesity on lack of physical activity.
I encourage the health benefits of regular exercise, but this is not the solution in tackling obesity. One would have to run for five hours to burn the calories of consuming a chocolate bar, a packet of crisps and a burger and chips washed down with a fizzy drink.
When I spoke to former British Olympic swimming gold medallist Duncan Goodhew about the issue he told me that when he was training for the Moscow Olympics in 1980 he avoided all processed foods and was aware even back then that sugary surges were bad for the body and would impair his performance.
It is time for regulation that has an impact.
A ban on firms such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola from sponsoring major sporting events and the prohibition on the use of celebrities to sell unhealthy food and drink to children would be a good start.
There is an opportunity for Britain to take the lead by leaving a positive health legacy from the Olympics.
We do not want the Games to be remembered for being associated with the opening of the largest McDonald’s in the world, which has been constructed inside the Olympic park.
Watch Dr Aseem Malhotra’s Newsnight’s report on the obesity and the Olympics on Monday 9 July 2012 at 22:30 BST on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.
Newsnight put the views expressed Dr Malhotra’s report to the International Olympics Committee, the London Organising Committee and a number of key sponsors. Here are the statements they issued in response:
Statement from the International Olympics Committee (IOC):
“The IOC only enters into partnerships with organisations that it believes work in accordance with the values of the Olympic Movement. Before entering or extending any partnership, we have a duty on behalf of all of the stakeholders in the Olympic Movement to consider this partnership very carefully, particularly where we enter partnerships on a long term basis. We are proud to work with both Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, with whom we have long term agreements in place through 2020.
“Coca-Cola has been a partner of the Olympic Games since 1928, and has an outstanding heritage in supporting the Olympic Movement, and promoting the Olympic Games and active, healthy lifestyles to billions of consumers. Today, Coca-Cola sponsors more than 250 physical activity and nutrition education programs in more than 100 countries and is committed to sponsoring a program in every country where it operates by the end of 2015.
“For London 2012, the company is focused on using its partnership with the Olympic Games to amplify the importance of active, healthy living. In London, Coca-Cola will deliver a variety and choice, and provide easy-to-understand information about their products so consumers can decide what is most appropriate for them. In fact, they will offer the widest range of drinks they have ever offered at an Olympic Games, including sparkling and still, low- and no-calorie choices, juices, smoothies and water.
McDonald’s has supported the Olympic Movement as a sponsor since 1976, and earlier this year we signed an extension to our global partnership with them through to 2020. McDonald’s provides a varied menu with a wide choice of high-quality options in its restaurants at the Olympic Games. The company is committed to promoting an active lifestyle, and has implemented well publicised nutrition and active lifestyle programmes around the world. For example, through its Champions of Play programme, McDonald’s will bring nearly 200 young people from more than 33 countries to London for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“McDonald’s also launched the ‘Happy Meal Mascotathon’ in the UK, with unique Happy Meal activity toys to track energy use. McDonald’s will offer their most extensive menu at an Olympic Games in their Olympic venue restaurants, and for the first time, will serve Happy Meals which will include fruit, vegetable and dairy options.
“The companies also support many other sporting organisations and events, ranging from major international events to local grassroots sports programmes – including for example, (Coca-Cola) The Fifa World Cup, the NFL, the Rugby World Cup and (McDonald’s) The Fifa World Cup, The Football Association.
“Funding from the Worldwide TOP Programme goes directly to over 200 National Olympic Committees, as well as to the Organising Committees of the Olympic Games. Without sponsorship funding, the Olympic Games would not happen in its current format and athletes from a number of nations would simply not be able to compete.
“By showcasing the inspirational sporting achievements of top athletes at the Games, we are able to promote and reinforce the importance of sports as part of a healthy, active lifestyle around the globe. Commercial partnerships play a major role in funding and promoting the Olympic Games, and physical activity initiatives and programmes.
“By supporting the Olympic Games, our Worldwide Partners promote sport and exercise, not only by supporting the Olympians who are able to train and compete at the Games thanks to the funding they receive, but also among the general public, who can draw inspiration from the performances of these athletes. Our sponsors are dedicated to using their marketing expertise and the appeal of their brands to communicate about physical activity in a relevant way.
“We are proud to be working with all of our Worldwide TOP Partners to deliver a successful Olympic Games that will bring with them a wealth of sporting, economic and social benefits.”
Statement from London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog):
“Sponsors provide a huge amount of the funding required to stage the Games – without our sponsors, the Games simply wouldn’t happen. We have a fantastic group of world class sponsors on board, working with us to stage spectacular Games this summer.
“They also have some great activation programmes which are helping deliver the vision behind London 2012, to use the Games to achieve lasting change.
“There will be sponsor-branded restaurants and products in the Olympic Park. This will be alongside a diverse and full-range of other local food offerings which we are committed to providing. We will cater for the wide range of people attending the Games, from athletes to spectators.”
Statement from Coca-Cola:
“As one of the longest, continuous sponsors of the Olympic Movement, we are proud that we are able to use our sponsorship to enable millions of people to experience the Games and believe we have a valid role to play. As well as sharing expertise, without the support of sponsors such as Coca-Cola, many National Olympic Committees would be unable to send athletes to compete.
“People consume many different foods and beverages, so no one single food or beverage alone is responsible for people being overweight or obese. We believe all of our drinks can be enjoyed as part of an active, healthy lifestyle that includes a sensible, balanced diet and regular physical activity.
“We have continually innovated our beverage choices – from one product in one size offered at the 1948 Olympic Games to today more than 500 brands with over 800 low- and no-calorie beverages. At London 2012 we will provide the widest range of drinks and sizes ever offered at an Olympic or Paralympic Games, to suit every lifestyle and hydration need.
“We are also helping people be physically active and our three-year partnership with StreetGames will connect 110,000 young people with sport and create a new generation of coaches. Coca-Cola sponsors more than 250 physical activity and nutrition education programmes in more than 100 countries and we are committed to sponsoring a programme in every country that we operate in by the end of 2015.”
Statement from McDonald’s:
“Sponsorship is essential to the successful staging of the Olympics and Paralympics. The Games is the biggest catering operation in the world and there aren’t many businesses that can rise to this challenge and do so in any country that the Olympics choose to visit. As a London 2012 sponsor, we are using our catering and customer service expertise to provide high quality British food quickly and safely, as well as our experience in people development to help train the 70,000 volunteers needed for the Games in our role as the Presenting Partner for the Games Maker programme.
“We recognise that public health issues like obesity are complex matters that cannot be solved by governments or companies alone. Ultimately it’s up to individuals to make the right food, drink, and activity choices for themselves and our broad range of menu options in a variety of sizes, together with the nutrition information, means that customers can make more informed choices.
“At London 2012 we will be serving our broadest ever menu at any Olympics – alongside our traditional options such as burgers and fries, we have many other options such as porridge, wraps, salads and fruit bags. We have also invested in a programme of recipe reformulation to deliver real benefits to our customers, for example reducing the salt in the Chicken McNuggets by 30% and reducing salt in our fries by a quarter. Our average children’s meal sold in 2011 contained 31% less sugar compared to 2011 and 46% less salt than it did in 2000.
“We’re committed to using our involvement in London 2012 to contribute to leaving a lasting legacy after the Games, whether that’s by innovating to make our Olympic Park restaurants the most sustainable in the world, helping to train the 70,000 volunteers, or creating a nationally-recognised qualification for the volunteers that we’ll hand over to the hospitality sector after the Games to help drive up customer service standards across our sector.”
Statement from Cadbury:
“The sale of confectionery and ice cream is long established at Olympic and Paralympic Games’ venues along with many other snacks and treats. It is therefore entirely appropriate for those treats to be made by Cadbury as the Games come to Britain and we are very proud to give our support to London 2012.”
Statement from Heineken:
“Heineken is proud to be a supplier and partner to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“As an industry leader and a global business, Heineken is unequivocally committed to the responsible marketing of its beers and ciders. We have a long track record of harnessing the power of global sporting events such as the Uefa Champions League and the Rugby World Cup to increase consumer awareness of both the Heineken brand and the responsible consumption of alcohol.
“Heineken actively encourages the enjoyment of beer in moderation as part of a healthy balanced lifestyle at all times.”