The epidemic of obesity and being overweight is an increasing global health issue. Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled from 1975 with over 4 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese.
Obesity is a social problem not only in high-income countries, but also in middle- and low-income countries where the rate of increase has been more than 30% higher than that of developed countries.
How is obesity defined?
The World Health Organisation defines obesity as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. A body mass index (BMI) ≥ 25 kg/m2 is considered overweight, and a BMI ≥ 30 kg/m2 is considered obese. Moreover, waist circumference, a measure of abdominal adiposity, is also important to determine level of overweight/obesity. It is associated with metabolic dysregulation and predisposition to cardiovascular disease. A waist circumference ≥ 94 cm in European men and ≥ 80 cm in European women represent a risk for cardiovascular disease.
Causes and consequences of obesity:
Patients with obesity are at major risk for developing a range of health conditions such as metabolic syndrome, type-2 diabetes, cancer, gastrointestinal disorders and cardiovascular disease. The main cause is a wrong dietary lifestyle which includes the consumption of high calorie foods rich in salt, sugar and saturated fats. Examples include burgers, fries, frozen pizza, chocolate cookies, biscuits and candies.
However, genetics and dietary lifestyle play an essential role too. Some populations such as Non-Hispanic Black Adults have the highest prevalence of obesity (49.6%), followed by Hispanic Adults (44.8%), non-Hispanic White Adults (42.2%) and non-Hispanic Asian Adults (17.4%). Furthermore, physical inactivity characterised by a sedentary behaviour is a major cause of overweight and obesity. It is recommended to do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week.
Tackling obesity in the UK:
Obesity is a preventable issue but a real challenge for the UK, considering that 63% of adults are overweight or obese, and 1 in 5 children live with obesity.
The UK government has launched a campaign to reverse obesity and help people make more informed choices on what they eat. These are the current UK government actions:
- Expansion of weight management services available through the NHS, so that people receive more support to lose weight.
- Mandatory action to introduce calorie labels to foods and drinks (including alcohol). This is because many people across the UK are unaware of how many calories they consume and what a portion of food should look like. Surveys show that many adults consume 200 to 300 extra calories.
- Ban promotions of foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) by restricting advertisements such as “buy one and get one free”. On the other hand, shops will be encouraged to promote healthier choices and offer more discounts on foods such as fruit and vegetables. Surveys have shown that promotions of unhealthy foods induce people to buy more of them.
- Ban the advertisement of HFSS products being shown on TV and online before 9 pm. (This will be done by the end of 2022). This measure is based on research published by Cancer Research UK, which shows that advertisement of unhealthy food on television influences children’s food preferences in the short and in the longer term.
- Implementation of more education trainings about healthy eating, so that parents can make healthier choices for their children and provide them with healthy food. This is because there are families across the UK socially deprived with low incomes that are often uneducated about healthy eating.
What you can do:
Obesity is a reversable issue and it’s possible to make steps towards a healthier and better life. The key to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is not a short-term dietary change, but it’s a lifestyle change that includes
- Embracing a healthy and balanced diet (please see the Eatwell Guide here)
- Physical activity at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week.
- Reduced sedentary activity such as watching television and playing videogames. If you have a sedentary occupational level, try to take breaks every 2-3 hours and take walks.
Here are some simple changes you can make to your lifestyle habits that will help you to lose weight and prevent obesity:
- Eat your 5-a-day: focus on eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables, as they contain phytonutrients that are associated with a lower risk of diseases. Moreover, they are high in fibre which will help you feel full with fewer calories. It can be hard if you are not keen on plant-based eating, but my suggestion is to buy recipe books (vegan or vegetarian) that may inspire you to cook with more fruit and veggies. Plant-based food can be very delicious!
- Avoid energy dense foods like processed foods: highly processed foods like ready meals in the supermarket, burgers, fries, white bread are a common source of empty calories. A study conducted in 2019 showed that subjects who are offered a highly processed diet consume more calories and gain weight, while those offered a minimally processed diet eat less and lose weight.
- Reduce sugar, salt and saturated fats in your diet: You should reduce sugar to six teaspoon a day (for women) and nine teaspoon a day (for men) and salt to maximum 6 g a day. Saturated fats should also be limited to 20 g a day. Try to replace foods such as butter and cream with olive oil, avocado and nuts (which are sources of healthy fats). Try to limit consumption of sugary beverages, cakes, cookies and ice cream.
- Avoid takeaways: takeaway meals are often high in fat, sugar and salt. A study showed that eating takeaways twice or more is associated with poorer diet quality and a higher prevalence of obesity. My recommendation is to cook at home with more plant-based ingredients, or if you don’t like cooking, you can purchase healthy meals such as the one that Love Yourself offers.
- Drink water: make water your go-to beverage. Aim at 6-8 glasses of water a day. On the other hand, reduce soft drinks and all type of sugar drinks that contain added sugar. Unsweetened coffee and tea are fine.
- Relax and sleep: stress and anxiety raise levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and leads to weight gain. In a similar manner, sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain over time. One study found that late bedtimes (after 9 pm) for 4- and 5-year-old children resulted in a greater likelihood of obesity over time. Moreover, sleep deprivation causes changes in glucose metabolism leading an individual to crave more energy-dense foods throughout the day. These changes lead to higher obesity risk in the long-term.