Wherever you look, obesity is headline news.
And it’s not so much about looks,
but more to do with the health risks of being overweight.
Because it costs. We tend to think of fat as purely a cosmetic issue. But it’s far more serious than bulging waistbands and clothes that no longer fit. A Government report revealed that obesity contributes to 30,000 deaths a year and costs £2.5 billion in days off work and NHS treatment. While obesity used to be rare in Britain, the last 20 years have seen us catching up fast with the USA where it is taking on epidemic proportions. One in two of the UK population is too heavy today – that’s three times the number in the 1980s. More seriously, one in five women and one in six men are classified as clinically obese.
Being overweight is bad for our health – even carrying a few extra pounds raises the risk of developing a range of life-threatening illnesses. ‘The blood of an overweight person looks almost like milk, it’s so cloudy’, says obesity expert Dr Nick Finer of Luton and Dunstable Hospital. ‘What causes that is the fat globules that are circulating in the blood round the body, narrowing the arteries, slowing the flow of blood and the delivery of oxygen to the body’s tissues.’
Fat people have five times the risk of late-onset diabetes and twice the risk of heart disease compared to their skinny peers. And recent research has also revealed that surplus pounds raise the chances of developing a range of cancers, particularly cancer of the colon, kidney and gallbladder.
Experts now calculate in terms of Body Mass Index: this is done by dividing weight in kilos by height in metres squared. The resultant figure is classified as follows:
- 20 to 24.9: a healthy weight
- 25 to 29.9: overweight
- 30 to 39.9: clinically obese
- over 40: severely obese
Weight problems increase with age. Two out of three over-45-year-olds are carrying too much weight compared to one in five of the population as a whole. Studies show that people in affluent areas are more likely to worry about being overweight but the truth is that women from poorer backgrounds are the biggest group of fatties.
Some families are clearly podgier than others. There are a handful of studies suggesting that people from fat families convert food into fat more rapidly than others. But the jury is still out on this one – scientists still don’t really know whether fat people inherit a tendency to put on weight – or whether they learn to pile too much food on their plates when they’re young.
The widely held belief that fat people have a slower metabolism than thin people – which would mean that food is stored as fat rather than being converted into energy – was investigated by Cambridge scientists and shown to be a myth. Research showed that far from having low metabolic rates, fat people have to convert more calories into energy than thin people. ‘Every activity they do takes up more energy because they have a bigger body weight to carry around,’ explains Dr Susan Jebb, director of the MRC Human Nutrition Research Unit. The difference between fat and thin people, it seems, is that the former consistently underestimate how much they eat.
We’ve still got stone-age metabolisms designed to allow maximum activity on minimum food. As yet, we haven’t adapted physically to car journeys, virtually immobile evenings in front of the television and copious quantities of fat-rich food.
Sadly GPs are not good at persuading people to change their lifestyle and take more exercise, which are the best ways of losing weight. As a result, they’re often reluctant to confront people with weight problems, even when they come to the surgery with a health problem that is weight-related, such as heart disease.
For most of us, it’s a matter of helping ourselves by remembering three basic rules:
- Most people can lose weight with more exercise, better diet, counselling or drug therapy - or a combination of all of these. Bear in mind that if energy intake equals energy expenditure your weight will remain stable. You’ll only lose it if you can cut your energy intake to below your energy requirements.
- Losing pounds is only the first step in the battle of the bulge; keeping them off is the difficult part. So you have to be sure you make sure you can live happily with whatever diet and exercise changes you make. And the good news is that half an hour of brisk walking, swimming or cycling five times a week is just as good as going to the gym.