In 2007 the Foresight programme run by the Government Office for Science produced a report on tackling obesity. It makes for depressing and disturbing reading yet it seems to be relatively unknown in the fitness industry and to have had little impact on shaping government nutritional policy.
The report itself is captivating reading, for example the fact that of the €38 billion (yes, billion) that is directed through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy the biggest amount, in relation to market value, is awarded to the tobacco industry. If that doesn’t worry you then let’s look at one of the report’s positive recommendations: that school sports fields be preserved and made accessible for communities. This idea was clearly rejected by that annoyingly smug-faced Michael Gove who has driven the recent sell-off of them across the UK, despite coalition ‘promises’ to the opposite. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/aug/17/michael-gove-school-playing-fields).
However, before I get stuck into this blog post, which admittedly could go on a bit, here is a direct link to the report so you can read it for yourself.
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to listen to two of the UK’s leading experts in tackling obesity: Professor David Haslam and Professor Jane Ogden, both who presented very differing viewpoints on the whole calamitous issue. Dr Haslam is a GP and Chair of the National Obesity Forum, while Dr Ogden heads up Health Psychology at the University of Surrey.
Both were entertaining speakers, but it was Dr Ogden’s talk that seemed to resonate best with me. Her compelling research on how and why we over consume food was fascinating. You can read some of her papers here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/?term=jane+ogden.
It got me thinking that it is worth revisiting this topic with at least the hope of providing some kind of dim light at the end of what is looking to be a very deep, dark, and long tunnel. Granted, you may well be thinking, why should I care? But you should because the financial impact of this alone was described by Prof. Haslam as a ‘ticking time bomb’ that will take up an estimated 17% of the NHS budget in 20 years time (http://www.diabetes.org.uk/About_us/News_Landing_Page/NHS-spending-on-diabetes-to-reach-169-billion-by-2035/).
Obesity is a one-way ticket to serious illness and disease and yet still we are a country in denial about the true extent of the problem. Short-term politics will never address long-term problems that can only be addressed through policies that will surely lead to the rapid ejection of any incumbent government. This is before we even get into whose responsibility it really is to deal with this. Should we even be relying on the government to tell us how and what we should be eating? I’m not so sure, but more on that later.
The fact is that despite all the wisdom and good intentions of the fitness industry, we are getting fatter. The UK is now the fattest country in Europe, with obesity growing here at a rate that will see UK females fatter than American males by the year 2030. Despite this the fitness industry and sadly most the trainers out there writing their sage wisdom on the topic fail to really understand this problem, what is causing it, and how we can deal with it. In fact, all too often those writing on ‘health and fitness’ seem to be creating more problems than they are solving in their ignorance.
The arguments, articles, books, movies, and musings over the drivers behind these rises though are plentiful and far too many to discuss in this post. They range from the most popular: over-consumption of foods (in particular refined carbohydrates), decreases in physical activity, and economic issues to those less discussed: environmental chemicals that can play havoc with our hormones, poorer sleep habits, and pharmaceutical obesogens. Gary Taubes recent book Diet Delusion did a commendable job in making the argument for refined carbohydrates as being the primary cause of the current obesity epidemic, although I can’t help but feel that it is as much effect as it is cause and that the drivers for this are what we need to understand if we are to effectively deal with it.
As part of the Foresight Report, an interactive map of 108 factors was created (of which only 16 are directly related to food consumption), which attempted to do exactly that. If nothing else, this map shows the total complexity of the problem. Check it out in an interactive format here http://www.shiftn.com/obesity/Full-Map.html.
Still with me? If you are then you will probably by now be realising that the advice we give to relatively lean athletes or exercisers looking to enter contests or sporting events is not the same advice we should be prescribing en masse to the overweight and obese population. Simply telling these folks to ‘eat green vegetables and lean meat’, ‘cut out the carbs’ or ‘have a high protein breakfast’ is not going to work. Atkins was giving that advice decades ago in what has become the world’s highest selling diet book and thousands more since have written books on it (including myself).
Just about every diet strategy has been tried, from low-carb to low-fat, points, blood types, food rotation, carb curfews, cabbage soup, maple syrup, and many many more. Still the obesity line climbs on the charts and graphs.
So what can we do? In the next part of this little series I’ll attempt to provide some solutions, along with the complex ethical and moral challenges each of those presents.