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Obesity Epidemic

New research shows that school-based programmes won’t solve the crisis without tougher action on the food industry.

We are in a global health crisis, and it grows worse by the year. By 2030 almost half the world’s population will be overweight or obese if current trends continue, the World Health Organization has warned. There are already 124 million obese children a more than tenfold increase in four decades. More than a million of these live in the UK, which has the worst obesity rates in western Europe. Four in five will grow up to be obese adults; and the leader of the UK’s paediatric body warns that this will cost them 10 to 20 years of healthy life.

The UK is facing a public health crisis. 62% of UK adults are overweight or obese. Every day more of us are dying from Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver disease and cancer. Being the ‘Fat Man of Europe’ is costing the NHS around £19 billion a year, and the bill is set to rise to £31 billion within eight years.

 

This is a social problem, both in cause and consequence. The chief executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens, has warned that obesity could bankrupt the health service. Yet the government’s response has been as modest and inadequate as these figures are shocking. Medical experts describe its childhood obesity strategy as weak, embarrassing and even insulting. Though it inherited a tax on sugary drinks – which comes into force this year – from George Osborne, it rowed back from restrictions on price-cutting promotions and junk food marketing or advertising. Instead, the strategy relies heavily on measures such as school activity programmes.

Campaigners warned that would not be enough; now research proves they were right – even when such initiatives tackle both diet and exercise, and make efforts to reach out to families. Children in schools in the West Midlands were given a year of extra physical activity sessions, a healthy eating programme and cookery workshops with their parents. It failed to have any significant effect on children’s weight. The researchers’ conclusion was clear: much more ambitious action is needed.

The causes of the obesity epidemic are multiple and complex, as the landmark Foresight report produced over a decade ago underscored: we live in an obesogenic environment, and some more so than others (more than twice as many children in deprived areas are obese as in affluent areas). TVs and smartphones in bedrooms and reliance on cars play their part; so too do food deserts, where fruit and vegetables are expensive or inaccessible. It is cheaper to fill a hungry child with doughnuts than with apples.

 

Other countries have been far bolder in tackling the industry, instead of relying on voluntary action. In Latin America, governments have forced companies to remove cartoon characters from cereal boxes, imposed junk food taxes and ordered school tuck shops to replace high-salt and -sugar products with fruit and vegetables. Tougher rules reshape consumer perceptions and decisions. And in doing so, they can also push companies into changing products.

A ban on junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed is long overdue. It should be supplemented by a ban on promotions and price cuts for “sharing” bags of chocolates, as Action on Sugar urged last month. And the sugar tax on drinks could be extended to food products, with the revenue channelled into initiatives making fruit and vegetables more affordable and attractive to consumers. The government’s failure to force change means that the rest of us will pay the price – in ill health and higher taxes as big food rakes in the profits.

Self-care

Experiencing depression can make it hard to find the energy to look after yourself. But taking an active role in your treatment and taking steps to help yourself cope with your experiences, can make a big difference to how you feel.

Eating a balanced and nutritious diet can help you feel well, think clearly and increase your energy levels.

Knowing what foods, we should and shouldn’t be eating can be really confusing, especially when it feels like the advice changes regularly. However, evidence suggests that as well as affecting our physical health, what we eat may also affect the way we feel.

Improving your diet may help to:

  • improve your mood
  • give you more energy
  • help you think more clearly.

If your blood sugar drops you might feel tired, irritable and depressed. Eating regularly and choosing foods that release energy slowly will help to keep your sugar levels steady.

Slow-release energy foods include: pasta, rice, oats, wholegrain bread and cereals, nuts and seeds.

Quick tips:

  • Eating breakfast gets the day off to a good start.
  • Instead of eating a large lunch and dinner, try eating smaller portions spaced out more regularly throughout the day.
  • Avoid foods which make your blood sugar rise and fall rapidly, such as sweets, biscuits, sugary drinks, and alcohol.

Keep active

Many people may find exercise a challenge but gentle activities like yoga, swimming or walking can be a big boost to your mood. We all know that being physically active is good for our bodies. But our physical health and mental health are closely linked – so physical activity can be very beneficial for our mental health and wellbeing too.

Lots of us don’t get enough exercise to stay healthy, but physical activity is particularly important if you have a mental health problem.

This is because people with mental health problems are more likely to:

  • have a poor diet
  • smoke or drink too much alcohol
  • be overweight or obese (this can be a side effect of taking medication)

So, if you have a mental health problem, the health benefits of becoming more physically active are even more significant.

 

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