The obesity epidemic - Challenge is for the individual

MOST people who are overweight are unhappy to be so. For the vast majority of obese people the feelings can be even stronger, many are deeply unhappy that they have lost control of such a fundamental aspect of their wellbeing.

Others struggle but fail to muster the energy, the willpower or even the time needed to change the habits that might kill them. Sometimes this can lead to feelings of self-loathing and cause the situation to spiral dangerously out of control.

That they are overweight is a consequence of personal behaviour does not make it easier to confront the situation; indeed it can make it even harder.

The never-ending clamour to lose weight, the well-meant lectures and the sometimes patronising advice all conspire to make it a very difficult to resolve the situation. But resolved it must be.

The figures — literally and physically — are too startling to ignore. Too many people, far, far too many children, are leading miserable lives because of what they consume. Obese children are heading for an unhealthy, unhappy adulthood and because of their eating and exercise habits may never realise their potential.

The World Health Organisation’s latest projection is that in seven years’ time there will be about 2.3 billion overweight adults, more than 700 million will be obese.

Yesterday’s all-island conference on obesity in Belfast heard that SLÁN 2007 (the Survey of Lifestyle, Attitudes and Nutrition in Ireland) established that 39% of the population of the republic are overweight and 25% are obese. The figures for the north are similar.

Speaking at a conference in Dublin last week, specialist Dr Donal O’Shea said obesity is the driver of a range of life-threatening “lifestyle” diseases. He warned that pouring funding into cardiology, cancer and dementia without tackling the epidemic feeding these conditions would be “a disaster”.

Earlier this week an American Heart Association conference heard that obese children as young as 10 had the arteries of 45-year-olds and other heart abnormalities that greatly raise their risk of heart disease.

Another report published this week, in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that a large waistline increases the risk of premature death even for people who are not technically overweight. The study, which involved more than 350,000 people from nine European countries, strongly supports theories about the dangers of too much waistline fat.

Yet another warning shot came from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, which shares the news that the chance of developing leading killers like breast and kidney cancer rises as people become increasingly overweight.

A renowned cancer professor told a London conference on obesity on Tuesday that we are “sleepwalking” into an explosion of cancer cases unless we stop piling on the pounds.

Professor Martin Wiseman, the medical and scientific adviser to the World Cancer Research Fund charity, says that today’s children will face increasing rates of cancer as they grow up unless tough action is taken.

The warnings, the reports and the worrying predictions are legion but all any of us have to do is walk down any street in Ireland and the evidence will be there to see.

The obesity plague is complex yet chillingly simple. Obese people are behaving normally in a sick society. Or, as the British Medical Journal put it: “The driving force for the increasing prevalence of obesity in populations is the increasingly obesogenic environment rather than any ‘pathology’ in individuals.”

In other words, the more obese people there are, the more normalised it becomes.

Medicine can play its part in the solution but the epidemic represents social failure on a huge scale.

The cynical role of marketing and the food conglomerates in priming this time bomb is as great as that of the most immoral financier in today’s economic crisis. The consequences may be as dramatic too.

Governments have tolerated food labelling that is often as confusing as it is enlightening. They have banned smoking, imposed speed limits and taxed alcohol to control consumption but they have allowed the food giants target children with products that are no more than sugar held together with fat.

But governments can only do so much in this instance. The challenge is for the individual and all society can do is to create an environment that will encourage a person who is overweight to change.

Anybody prepared to make that change should get the support of everybody around them; it is a challenge that should not be underestimated.

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