The high cost of free sugars on health

Paying the consequences of sugar-rich diets: Having a sweet tooth can kill you

Dr. Mary L’Abbé is an expert in public health nutrition, nutrition policy, and food and nutrition regulations, with a long and distinguished career in mineral nutrition research.

Dr. Mary R. L’Abbé is the Earle W. McHenry Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto. She holds a PhD in nutrition from McGill University and has authored over 200 peer-reviewed scientific publications, book chapters and government reports. A member of several WHO committees, including the Nutrition Guidance Expert Advisory Group on Diet and Health and the Global Coordinating Mechanism for NCDs, Dr. L’Abbé was co-chair of the Canadian Trans Fat Task Force, led the Trans Fat Monitoring Program and served as Chair and Vice-chair of the Canadian Sodium Working Group. She is currently Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre on Nutrition Policy for NCD Prevention.

“CIHR funding has been instrumental in securing my research transition from government to academia. This and other CIHR research funding has supported my research program in public health nutrition and has also supported the training of 7 PhD, 10 MSc and 6 PDFs, many of whom have also received CIHR, Vanier and Banting awards themselves.”

The Earle W. McHenry Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, at the University of Toronto, Dr. Mary L’Abbé leads a research group on Food and Nutrition Policy for Population Health. Before joining the University of Toronto, Dr. L’Abbé was Director of the Bureau of Nutritional Sciences at Health Canada, responsible for nutrition laboratory research, surveillance, scientific evaluation and regulatory programs.

As Principal Investigator leading a team that is measuring the effects of sugar-reduction strategies on non-communicable diseases in Canada, Dr. L’Abbé and her colleagues will study three strategies designed to combat the sugar epidemic.

The team aims to examine Canadian packaged and restaurant foods to assess the impact of:

  • lowering the total sugar content
  • lowering the free sugar content, and
  • reducing the proportion of heavily processed food consumed, on dietary intakes and health outcomes

While sugar is high in calories, it also has no essential nutrients. In addition to adding sugar to non-processed foods for taste, many processed foods are high in sugar, even if they are not considered to be a sweet treat.

It is the cumulative effect of having sugar added to so many foods that has Dr. L’Abbé and her colleagues worried. Her research will examine the nutritional quality of Canadian’s food supply, food intake patterns, and consumer research on food choices related to obesity and chronic disease. The danger of exceeding the recommended daily intake of calories (due to a diet high in sugar) is real. People with elevated levels of sugar in their diet run the risk of premature death from chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Dr. L’Abbé and her colleagues are convinced that gathering evidence-based data on policy relevant research questions will help to educate Canadians and positively influence both policy makers and consumers towards healthier eating.

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