Sugar packets which look like cigarettes to highlight that both sugar and cigarettes are harmful for the health are seen at the Jodhpur restaurant Downtown, Dubai. Image Credit: Antonin Kélian Kallouche/Gulf News

Dubai: Sugar is the new tobacco and excessive sugar consumption can be equally harmful to the body as smoking cigarettes, health experts warn on the occasion of World No Tobacco Day observed on May 31.

While most people today are aware that smoking leads to heart disease — the number-one killer in the UAE — the ravaging effects of eating too much sugar have gone relatively unnoticed, UAE-based doctors told Gulf News.

“Sugar has currently become one of the main original variables of chronic health conditions like diabetic issues, heart problems and with obesity, also cancer,” said Dr. Suresh K Menon, specialist Internal Medicine at Aster Gardens Specialty Clinic, Discovery Gardens.

“On a daily basis, most people tend to consume sugar in quantities more than the actual recommendation. On an average, adults consume twice the recommended daily amount,” he said.

Dr Menon said people do not feel the need to quit smoking until they experience a serious health issue, because the consequences of smoking and tobacco usage only begin to depict symptoms at a later stage.

“Similarly, in the case of sugar, people are unaware of the serious harm excess sugar consumption can cause because it forms a part of one’s regular diet.”

As revealed in the Dubai Diabetes Survey conducted by the DHA in collaboration with the Dubai Statistics Centre, the prevalence of diabetes in Dubai is 15.2 per cent while the prevalence of diabetes among Emiratis in Dubai is 19 per cent and among expats is 14.7 per cent.

To highlight the dangers of sugar consumption, Aster Clinic released a nationwide health awareness campaign called ‘#STUBSUGAR’ to educate people across all age groups about the threats and consequences of a substance as harmful as tobacco — ‘sugar.’

As part of the campaign, Aster designed 5,000 tailor made sugar sachets in the form of cigarettes and distributed it to 27 prominent cafes in Dubai to replace regular sugar sachets.

Dr Menon explained that one of the largest sources of excess sugar is beverages such as soft drinks, energy drinks and packaged fruit juices/drinks.

“These are the dietary version of the cigarette. They may provide short-term satisfaction, but in the long term they contribute to a range of diseases and ultimately premature mortality. Sugar, like tobacco, may be addictive. People can build up a tolerance to sugar much the same way smokers do,” he said.

He pointed out that there is added sugar in bread, yoghurt, peanut butter, soup, sausages and in nearly any processed food. Also, a single tablespoon of tomato sauce can contain a teaspoonful of sugar while yogurt, considered ‘healthy’ by some, often has high quantities of hidden sugar.

“With this campaign, every time the customer opts for sugar, they are advised to re-evaluate their decision to add sugar to the drink and is motivated to place an end to this harmful behaviour,” said Dr Menon.

Dr Menon warned of the ‘invisible sugar’ which comes under 40 different names for sugar listed on food labels ranging from ‘agave nectar’ to ‘high-fructose corn syrup’ and ‘molasses’. Children, he added, are also at risk of leading shorter lifespans than their parents as sugar has been pumped into so many low-fat foods, making them susceptible to a host of chronic diseases.

Dr Munaz Ahmad, General Practitioner at Aster Clinic, UMC, Karama, said it only takes simple steps to lead a healthier lifestyle. “It’s about eating fresh, healthy foods, fruits and vegetables, lean meat and wholegrain cereal, and cooking from scratch.”

Reviewing product labels for its sugar composition and aiming for less than 15 grams per 100 grams, especially for diabetics, is of utmost important.

“It is easier for an individual to reduce their own calorie intake by 70 to 100 calories per day. That’s merely one less cookie and perhaps choosing foods that are sugar laden, less frequently. Doing so prevents you from the risk of diseases such as liver disease, heart disease, obesity, inflammation and diabetes,” said Dr Ahmad.

He added that two approaches have worked to reduce smoking worldwide — consumer education and taxation — and this can also help combat over-consumption of sugar.

Benefits of quitting smoking in all formats (cigarettes/sheesha)

• increased circulation throughout your body, as well as lower blood pressure

• the oxygen levels in your blood increase, and carbon monoxide levels reduce

• your lungs will be more relaxed, and breathing may feel less laboured than before

• improved stamina

• decrease in coughing and sinus congestion

• an overall increase in energy

• risk of heart disease drops to half of what it is for a smoker

• your risk of other cancers will greatly decrease as well

Benefits of reducing sugar consumption

• Cutting out or cutting back on sugar may help you to lose weight

• Better oral health — naturally-occurring bacteria in your mouth thrives on sugar. So less sugar means less cavities and gum disease

• Reducing sugar intake can lead to improved mental health and mood

• Reduces your risk of diabetes and heart disease — Eating too much sugar can raise the level of triglycerides, or fats, in your blood. Higher triglyceride levels may boost your risk of heart disease.

• Healthier glowing skin, and can help reduce acne