(Junk) food for thought

Why are our waistlines expanding by the year? Clodagh Finn turns to health author Sarah Boseley to find out what’s wrong with the way we eat today.

HOW could we still be getting fat? We all know the villains of the obesity pandemic – sugar, saturated fat, alcohol – yet our waistlines continue to expand. Last month, one Irish health expert went as far as saying the crisis was so severe that this generation of parents may be the first to bury their very overweight children.

The health warnings have been unequivocal. The way we eat is putting us at risk of type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and early death. So why aren’t we listening? Ask Sarah Boseley that question and the journalist and author of a new book on how junk food and diets are shortening our lives will give you an unexpected answer.

It’s not the empty calories in fast food, or the hidden sugars in juices and smoothies, or indeed the saturated fat that’s clogging up our arteries – although all of these things play a role.

It’s denial.

We are all in denial and it is making us fat, says Bosley.

“We think obesity looks like the super-fat people you see in the tabloids, but not like us. We don’t want to recognise what is happening, that everyone is getting fat, including us.”

And though we think we know what fat is, experiments have shown what people think is normal is overweight or obese, says Boseley, whose book The Shape We’re In was published last week.

In 1999, researchers asked 1,000 men and 1,000 women if they would describe themselves as overweight. They asked the same question eight years later: In 2007, the same people weighed considerably more but only 75% of them considered themselves overweight compared to 81% eight years previously.

It is easy to fall into a false sense of security and accept our new “well-covered” bodies as the norm but, warns Boseley, if people knew what fat was doing to the inside of their bodies, they would see it as a more urgent problem.

Denial, though, runs deeper than our own blinkered approach to the dress sizes and portions that have been creeping up steadily since the 1950s. It has infected every level of society – from government through to big business, says Boseley.

Nobody wants to admit that fat is wrecking havoc on our bodies. Moderate obesity cuts life expectancy by two to four years, while severe obesity could wipe a decade off your life, the Lancet wrote in 2009.

At an Irish Heart Foundation conference last month, the secretary-general at the Department of Health, Ambrose McLoughlin, warned that the obesity problem was so severe in young people that the present generation of parents may be the first to bury their children.

A 2014 global study of obesity, published in the Lancet, found that Irish obesity rates were among the highest in Western Europe. About 26% of Irish people under the age of 20 are either overweight or obese, while 61% of men and almost 51% of women are overweight or obese.

Prof Donal O’Shea, head of the obesity management clinic in St Columcille’s Hospital, Dublin, estimates that the young are getting one fifth of their calories from junk food and said the health service was close to being “overwhelmed” by those seeking treatment.

You have to wonder why we are not already on a war footing, says Boseley. But, as her meticulously researched book explains, part of the problem is the complex nature of obesity. We are not more gluttonous or more weak-willed than our predecessors, according to the Foresight report published in Britain in 2009. What has changed beyond recognition, though, is the way we work and eat, and more critically, the way we produce and sell food.

Boseley is not slow to point the finger of blame at multinational food manufacturers (and their “rapacious profiteering”) along with the politicians of all stripes who collude with them because food giants create jobs and jobs matter to national economies.

To get some idea of the scale of profits, consider this. In 2010, Burger King and Pizza Hut spent a staggering $4bn (€2.94bn) just to market their products. The tone of food and drink advertising has also changed. Where once chocolates and other sweets were marketed as an occasional treat they are now seen as an everyday treat.

“It is not a fair fight,” says Boseley, adding that consumers are at the mercy of food manufacturers who are deeply manipulative.

She takes Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate as an example. One advertising campaign suggested it was almost a health food — with its “glass and a half of full-cream milk in every bar” — but now it is being marketed as the purveyor of joy. The chocolate company is offering to make whatever brings you joy out of “delicious Cadbury chocolate” if you find a pink foil inside your wrapper. You could — in theory at least – ask the manufacturers to make you anything from a garden shed to a collection of Louboutins.

Prof Donal O’Shea points out the clever marketing behind Coca-Cola’s most recent promotion, which puts your name on the can. He compared it to “personalised pedlling”. It is certainly enough to distract you from the fact that a standard can of Coca-Cola contains 35g of sugar, a little more than a Mars bar.

But Coke and Pepsi are conscious of growing health concerns and have started to muscle in on the juice and smoothie market. PepsiCo bought Tropicana and, in Britain, Coca-Cola bought Innocent Smoothies. It sounds like a step in the right direction but dieticians are already warning about the dangers of smoothies and juices. An Innocent strawberry and banana smoothie, for example, has about the same amount of sugar as a Crunchie.

“But here’s the biggest problem,” says Boseley, “although sugary drinks are energy dense, they don’t give you that feeling of fullness that stops you wanting more.”

Add to that the hidden sugars in savoury foods — a slice of bread has about a third of a teaspoon — and a global tendency to snack and the figures (1.46bn people are overweight, according to the WHO) start to make sense.

Given the risks and prevalence of obesity, why aren’t our governments tackling sugar and fat in the same way they took on smoking, asks Boseley.

“Where are the ads linking too many soft drinks, burgers and chips to furred-up arteries, cancer and diabetic foot amputations?” she writes.

Health Minister James O’Reilly has been criticised for failing to adopt international guidelines that reduce the recommended daily intake of sugar. His previous efforts to introduce a sugar tax failed but there is growing support for such a measure. A recent Ipsos/MRBI poll showed 52% of people are in favour of such a tax. It is naïve to think food and drink companies will make changes voluntarily, says Boseley.

“That would be like asking a turkey to vote to Christmas.”

She advocates a strong and coordinated approach but warns that nothing can be done until governments and society collectively admit there is a problem.

“That’s the first thing. Denial is a killer. It allows us to sleepwalk into crisis.”

Though obesity is now considered a disease and something that needs to be tackled at a governmental and societal level, there are still things we can do as people or as families.

“Whatever happened to ‘No eating between meals’? I grew up with that,” says Boseley.

It’s time to turn the clock back, she argues, and bring back family meals along with more respect for food. A tax on junk food would help, along with an education and information campaign to advise people to eat “real food”. But, she adds, voluntary agreements, like the traffic-light labelling on packs, with red lights for foods high in salt, fat or sugar, are just not enough.

“That’s where governments have to come in. Laissez-faire has had its day. Doing nothing is not an option if obesity as a national and a global health problem is to be brought under control.”

But there is also hope. An experiment that involved whole communities in fighting the lifestyles that lead to obesity was initiated in two towns in France and has now spread to others. In 2000, the people of Fleurbaix and Laventie in northern France (about 6,600 in all) were asked to participate in a community-wide anti-fat programme that involved a range of measures – there were new sporting facilities, walking routes, cooking workshops, counselling. By 2005, obesity in children had dropped by a 10% to 8.8%, while it had shot up to 17.8% in neighbouring towns.

Maybe communities will turn out to be the strongest weapon in the fight against fat.

The Shape We’re In: How Junk Food and Diets Are Shortening Our Lives by Sarah Boseley is published by Guardian Faber, €19.40.

Forget about celebrity diets

Why diets don't work

Here is the cruel truth — diets don’t work.

Yes, we’ve seen tremendous results flashed on the pages of glossy magazines and the celebs strutting their stuff on the red carpet. Megan Fox looks stunning on the Paleo diet; Jennifer Aniston and Beyoncé swear by the 5:2 diet while Gisele Bundchen and Kate Middleton are said to be fans of the Dukan diet.

But, as Sarah Boseley points out, none of these people were fat to begin with.

Diets are not the solution to obesity, but part of the problem.

“The diet industry, with its gimmicks, motivational books and celebrity endorsements, is one of the biggest frauds of our time,” she says.

The unhappy truth, is that when you diet you are fighting your own body.

Diets can cause chemical and hormonal changes in the body and, in fact, lead you to put on more weight.

“Your body responds by changing your hormonal levels so that you are actually craving more food because your body thinks you are about to starve, ” Boseley explains.

If diets worked, she adds, there would be no need to keep promoting them.


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