A staggering 1.1 billion people in the world are nowoverweight and 300 million of them are clinicallyobese, according to the World Health Organisation(WHO) (1). In North America, the rates are epic, withalmost a third of adults (31 per cent) now obese and61 per cent experiencing weight-related healthproblems (2). For the first time in human history, thenumber of overweight people in the world rivals thenumber of underweight people.In the UK, its a similar picture with adult obesityhaving trebled in the last 20 years. In England, arounda fifth of men (21 per cent) are obese and for womenthe figure is nearly a quarter (24 per cent). Two thirdsof men and over a half of women are now eitheroverweight or obese - an incredible 24 million peoplein total (3). The cause is not some fat gene that hassuddenly been switched on but because people eat toomuch of the wrong foods!Obesity provides the gateway to disease, placing peopleat a higher risk of developing killers such as diabetes,high blood pressure (hypertension), heart disease, coloncancer and stroke (4). It promotes debilitatingconditions such as angina, gall bladder diseases,osteoarthritis and back pain and can restrict mobilityand cause both social and psychological problems (5).No wonder the Chief Medical Officer called it a health‘time bomb’ in his 2002 annual report (3).
What is Obesity?
Obesity is normally calculated by taking a person’sweight in kilograms and dividing twice by their heightin metres. The result is called the Body Mass Index(BMI) and between18.5kg/m
isacceptable, between 25kg/m
isoverweight and 30kg/m
or more signifies obesity (1).Apple-shaped people, who store excess fat around theirabdomen, are more at risk than pear-shaped people,who store it around their buttocks and thighs. Apple-shaped people have a high waist-to-hip ratio (WHR)and this is linked to coronary heart disease, stroke,diabetes, breast cancer (after menopause) andgallstones (6).
Meat-eaters are twice as likely to be obese asvegetarians and nearly four times as obese as vegans,according to a 2003 paper published in the journalPublic Health Nutrition (7). Other research has cometo similar conclusions (8, 9, 10, 11). The prestigiousAmerican Dietetic Association gives thereasons as being vegetarians’ lowerprotein, fat and animal (mostlysaturated) fat intake, and their higherfibre and vegetable consumption (12).
Humans evolved as hunter-gatherersand are still best-suited to what theyate 10,000 years ago. As Table 1shows, diets consisted of seasonalfoods containing relatively lowamounts of meat, saturated fat andenergy. Obesity results from eating toomuch food with a high calorie content,so that we take in more energy thanour bodies can use.This unhealthy energy balance hascome about through a combination of over-reliance on cars and inactivepastimes such as TV viewing, combined with anabundance of cheap, easy to buy and vigorouslymarketed fatty and sugary, highly-calorific foods.Our meat-based, fast-food culture is based on ever-larger portions and eating and snacking on fatty foodssuch as burgers and chips. Eaten regularly, this type of food promotes weight gain and obesity by causingpeople unintentionally to eat more calories than theirbodies need, according to the journal
(13). Humans are innately weak, it says, when it comesto regulating how much they eat.We are stillprogrammed toeat a low-energydiet - the kind of diet eaten inparts of thedevelopingworld whereobesity is not aproblem -according toProfessorAndrewPrentice, Headof the MedicalResearchCouncilInternationalNutrition
Table 1: Hunter-gatherer v modern dayurban lifestyles
Hunter-gatherersModern city dweller
ActiveSedentaryDiet limited by seasonal Abundant energy intakechanges, fluctuating all year roundenergy intakeLow saturated fat intakeHigh saturated fat intakeLow intake of meatHigh meat intakeNo milk consumptionHigh consumption of dairy productsHigh fibre dietLow fibre dietLow sugar intakeHigh sugar intakeSalt restrictionHigh salt dietNo alcoholHigh alcohol intake
Obesity -the time bombwaiting to explode
Charlie Powell outlines the grim facts behind increasing levels of obesity and explains why protectingour children must become a priority