Food and the obesity epidemic

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Human nutrition is a core health, personal, and community matter, as well as an important and high profile political consideration. Access to healthy nutrition is a basic human right, and the vast majority of us in this country are lucky enough to access this without too much difficulty. In fact, you could argue that here in the United Kingdom we are spoilt for choice, that we have far too much food to choose from, and that our diet is far from optimal. This fuels rising obesity, which is proving to be a big public health problem and an individual clinical concern. The complications of this obesity epidemic are well known to us healthcare professionals, but as a society we are struggling to contain its impact.

We are well versed in the problems of dealing with the obesity epidemic, but it is important not to become complacent, and we should be prepared to learn and understand more. In light of this, I found an interesting article recently published in the Univadis Medical News service (http://www.univadis.co.uk/medical-news/287/Food-energy-rise-matches-global-weight-gain). Referring to a study published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, the Univadis article said, “Researchers have urged policy makers to improve the healthiness of food after a study showed that obesity rates are rising in many countries in line with increases in the amount of energy in food.” This statement may seem self evident and obvious, but it is important and hence worth highlighting.

Of course, obesity is driven not just by what we eat but also by our activity levels. I’m sure we’re all aware that many of us lead rather sedentary existences and that we should exercise more. That premise should continue; however, the Univadis article noted, “The authors said the study showed that the amount of food consumed is the main driver of obesity, rather than lack of exercise or other factors.” This statement somewhat surprised me, but I found it informative, and I will certainly quote this in relevant future consultations with patients.

The Univadis article quoted one of the study authors as saying, “Much of the increase in available calories over the decades has come from ultra-processed food products, which are highly palatable, relatively inexpensive and widely advertised, making overconsumption of calories very easy.” This overconsumption of calories is core to the problem of the rising levels of obesity.

No easy solution exists to the difficult but hugely important problem of obesity, but tackling it will require coordinated input from a huge number of organisations, groups, and governments. This will prove tricky, but improving the health and quality of diets is an important problem for policy makers, the food industry, healthcare professionals, and—most importantly—the consumers. How we deal with this will have a huge effect on the health of the population for many years to come.

Harry

By Dr Harry Brown, editor-in-chief, Univadis