Time to tackle the fat and refuse to be passive


Opinion:Ireland is suffering from an epidemic of obesity. Various health promotion bodies try to divine ways to tackle the problem, while our national TV services effectively stoke the problem by transmitting food programmes as popular entertainment.

Obesity, the commonest nutritional disorder in the world, is a disease where excess fat accumulates to an extent that adversely affects health. Obesity results from consistently consuming more calories than are burned off through activity. Obesity contributes to high blood pressure, raised blood fat levels and blood clotting tendency, angina and heart attacks, raised blood insulin levels and type two diabetes.

Some 45 per cent of Irish men and 33 per cent of Irish women are overweight; 24 per cent of men and 26 per cent of women are obese. And 22 per cent of Irish 5- to 12-year-olds are overweight or obese. Eleven per cent of Irish teenagers are overweight and 8 per cent are obese.

The tendency towards obesity is increasing. Ireland now has the fourth-highest prevalence of overweight and obesity in men in the EU and the seventh- highest prevalence among women, according to data from the Irish Heart Foundation).

The societal cost of obesity is huge in terms of human misery and economics. It is estimated that obesity is responsible for at least 2,000 premature deaths in Ireland annually, which may cost the State up to €4 billion per year.

The main external influences that encourage obesity in 99 per cent of people are environmental (the “toxic environment”) and include unhealthy diets, food advertising/marketing, too little physical activity, or over-busy schedules. Joan Salge Blake, nutritionist and author of Nutrition and You, says “our environment is conducive to eating 24/7”.

Another factor that unwittingly encourages obesity is TV food programming. Psychological studies have shown that tempting images of food precipitate strong desires to eat even when our bodies don’t need fuel. The food cues seem to trigger a release of an insulin hormone that stimulates areas of the brain involved in craving. High calorie “comfort foods” may be particularly powerful in this respect and seem to have the deepest effect on people who are dieting.

TV food programmes are not all negative. Programmes that promote low-calorie, nutritious food are good, as is encouraging people to cook at home and to share meals with family and friends. But, on balance, we now have far too many TV food programmes whose net effect is to encourage greater consumption of higher calorie food.

Conventional attempts to stem the rising tide of obesity have failed. The “toxic environment” overwhelms all approaches designed to reduce calorie intake and to increase physical activity. Public education and various proposals – such as taxing sugary, fizzy drinks and posting calorie information on restaurant menus – only nibble at the margins of the problem.

We already know this from long experience with cigarettes, where, despite all the public education, taxing the price of cigarettes out of sight, and posting death warnings on cigarette packs, 29 per cent of Irish adults continue to smoke. This is more smokers than before the ban on smoking in workplaces was introduced in 2004.

I have no solution to offer that will quickly stem the rising tide of obesity, but the following “tuppence worth” of advice might help. Most people believe that losing weight is very difficult and what you believe becomes your truth regardless of whether it is objectively true or not.

In fact, for most people, losing weight need not be very difficult and if you choose to believe this, it will become true for you. About three hours of exercise a week, divided into manageable short bursts, will suffice for calorie-burning and there is no shortage of low-calorie tasty food options for meals.

You will have setbacks but understanding that these are part of the journey and can be left behind will prevent you getting disheartened and giving up.

And all the while you are working on your weight-reduction programme you get the rewarding feedback of feeling and looking better. Refuse to be a passive victim of the “toxic environment”. Transcend the problem with positive energy – and cut down on the TV food programmes.

* William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry and public awareness officer at UCC.understandingscience.ucc.ie

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