The western world is facing an obesity crisis. Recent data highlights a staggering reality: in the UK 3000 adults per day are being admitted to hospitals due to obesity-related illnesses, marking a dire situation where obesity rates have doubled in just six years and positioning the UK as the heaviest nation in Europe. In the USA 69% of adults are in the overweight or obese range. The financial impact, amounting to billions of pounds, underscores the urgency for addressing this health epidemic.
The health effects of being overweight are huge (excuse the pun) leading to diabetes, strokes, heart disease, joint pain and cancer - not to mention our mental health conditions… lack of confidence, anxiety and depression.
So what is the cause of this ‘epidemic’? Is it our genes, our environment or are we just plain greedy?
Let’s face it, we’ve been through a lot in the last few years. Our working conditions have changed considerably with more people working from home - and therefore not walking, commuting, cycling to work as much as they used to. Mental health has suffered through the pandemic and it’s easy to turn to comfort eating.
We’re also suffering from ‘portion distortion’, a term that emerged following an academic article authored by Samara Joy Nielsen and Barry M. Popkin at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 2000s.
Back in the 80s a typical bagel was approximately 3 inches (7.5cm) in diameter - fast forward to now and the average bagel has doubled in size to nearer 6 inches (15.2cm)! Fast food restaurant sizes have more than doubled (226%) and we’re now encouraged to buy larger sizes like SuperSize or Double Gulp. (Side note: car manufacturers have even increased cup holder sizes to accommodate these huge sugary drinks!). Meanwhile the average cookie has increased 700% based on USDA standards.
Should we play the blame game? Is it the fault of government for not educating us better on nutrition or being weak on sugar taxes? Or should we take more personal responsibility for how fat we get?
Eating is complex. It’s clearly essential for life so would shock tactics like the campaigns against tobacco and alcohol be appropriate?
Although we’re no longer cavemen with a hunt and gather mentality, evolution hasn’t kept pace with our modern life where food, at least in the western world, is generally available (including cheap junk food) which means it’s easy to eat, even past the point of being full.
Movies and media have endorsed eating food for comfort. How many tv shows have you seen where the broken hearted have reached for an ice cream tub and a spoon implying that indulging in a treat will make you feel better?
Food labelling could be simplified - stating clearly how that product will impact your daily intake. How often have you checked calories on a label to find that the product has three times that amount because it’s per portion not per package.
But when it comes down to obesity, the basic cause is an excess of energy intake over expenditure. In a nutshell, we eat too much and we don’t have enough physical activity to work it off.
Japan have introduced a ‘fat tax’. The ‘Metabo law’ is, in theory, simple – stay below a government-mandated waistline of 85 cm for women and 90 cm for men or face the consequences. Employers and local government are responsible for the annual waist measurement check of 50 million Japanese aged between 40 and 74 - and get fined if employees are overweight!
It’s unlikely that this heavy handed government approach would work in the UK or USA but, it’s possible that if stats don’t change, some radical ideas might have to be introduced.
Back in the 90s scientists uncovered the FTO (also known as “Fatso”) gene with the strongest known effect on common types of obesity. Some variants of the gene increase obesity risk, while others lower it. However, the effects of FTO depend on environment. Even high-risk forms of FTO have little effect on body fat among people who get lots of exercise or eat low-fat diets. Basically if you eat right and exercise right, you won’t be fat.
On our 9 January podcast episode of Two Women Chatting we chatted to Jane Michell, CEO and founder of Jane Plan weight management system about obesity and body reality.
Jane told us “We're at a pivotal moment where educating people about what they consume is crucial. Food labelling is just the tip of the iceberg. It's time to confront what truly harms us — the excessive sugars and empty calories lurking in our drinks and snacks. We can't ignore the impact of these choices any longer.”
No argument with that stance here. A multi-faceted approach with shared responsibility between government, food producers and individuals is needed, starting with education in schools and for adults, accessibility to ‘good’ healthy foods, portion control and food labelling. Sprinkle on a some government sugar tax and supported individual commitment and then maybe we can start saving the NHS some of approx £20 BILLION it costs to treat obese and overweight-related diseases.
To listen to the full episode just click here
Please visit our Midlife Library for which has a collection of useful links from 3rd party websites and content.
Two Women Chatting have partnered with Jane Plan UK to offer our listeners £50 if they use code TWC50 as a new subscriber for Jane's weight management system.