Food and Behaviour Research

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Bad diets are not just for Christmas – they’re for life

Torsten Bell

child eating cake

Let’s panic less about what we consume in a particular week of the year and focus more on our diets generally. We need to focus on our sugar intake across the year and the effect it has on our children’s health, wealth and happiness.


A new study has shown remarkably strong links between high sugar intakes in early life and poor long-term outcomes in older adulthood in terms of physical health and wellbeing, educational achievement and economic status.

The researchers took advantage of data from a unique period in UK history - namely, the strict rationing of sugar and sweets (and other foods) after the second world war - and compared adult outcomes (at age 60+) for those who were born in the few years before this rationing ended, with those who were born in the few years afterwards.    

The lifting of sugar rationing in 1953 led to an almost immediate doubling of sugar intake - while notably, there was almost no change in the consumption of other foods that had also been rationed.

What's more, sugar intakes remained significantly higher thoughout life for individuals who were exposed to higher general population sugar intakes in their earliest years, compared with those born in the years before sugar rationing ended.

The 'first 1000 days' from conception, i.e. the period throughout pregnancy and early infancy, is already known to be a 'critical period' for brain development - including the shaping of children's tastes and food preferences.  And the 'addictive' properties of sugar have already been well-documented.

'Nutritional programming' is the name given to the many ways in which early life nutrition can permanently influence gene expression, via so-called 'epigenetic' mechanisms.  Scientific research has long shown that the diets of mother-to-be and young infants can - and do - have lifelong effects on both physical and mental health.

These new findings are open-access, and published by the National Bureau for Economic Research.  One can only hope that they might provide a wake-up call to governments that no country can afford to ignore the impacts of early nutrition on public health - and that policies to reduce the excessive consumption of high-sugar foods and drinks is already long overdue.   

For details of the underlying research, see:

For further information please see:

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A bit of Christmas cake once a year is not the problem, it’s our rising sugar intake generally. 
Never mind the tidings, it’s food that brings comfort and joy at Christmas. I’ve definitely had the cake, chocolates and mince pies flowing. It’s no surprise that the new year’s resolutions that keep overpriced gyms in operation swiftly follow as people worry about this unhealthy eating having lasting effects. After all, 28% of us are obese, double the rate of the early 1990s.

A new study brings a long-term perspective to a more specific question: how lasting are the effects of young children consuming too much sugar? To find out, the authors examine the impact of the end of postwar sugar rationing in the UK in 1953, which saw sugar consumption double.
The effects are almost unbelievably large, in part because the people consuming more sugar as young children went on doing it for life. Fifty years on, those born after rationing consumed over 22% more sugar than those born during it. We’re talking three Oreos a day.
Unsurprisingly, the health impact was significant: those born after rationing had around 50% higher rates of diabetes and arthritis later in life.
But the impacts go far wider, with those born just after rationing having a materially reduced likelihood of gaining post-secondary education, having a high-skill job or accumulating more than typical wealth.
So let’s panic less about what we consume in a particular week of the year and focus more on our diets generally – and those of the youngest children. Here, policy can make a difference. Just before Christmas the World Health Organization called on countries to tax sugary drinks and published a manual for countries looking to do so, drawing on the UK’s successful version. Rationing isn’t the future but less sugar might be.