Since the earliest times, the survival of any species has depended on having access to a reliable supply of food. Man, through hunting, foraging and later, agriculture, has become one of nature’s most successful species because of our particular skill at acquiring a steady supply of food.
It is indeed possible, however, to have too much of a good thing. It is now becoming clear that the very abundance of cheap, calorie-rich food that has fuelled the population explosion of the 20th Century is now coming back to haunt us.
In the late 1990s, the World Health Organisation warned of an 'escalating epidemic' of obesity that would affect millions of people around the world if action was not taken immediately. Since then and despite continual warnings from health professionals, governments and the media, prevalence of this disease has significantly increased, with one in five Irish adults now thought to be obese. But perhaps more worryingly is the fact that it is now becoming more common in children too.
In the so-called developed world, obesity has arguably become the number one health concern, ahead of cancer, heart disease and AIDS (which is now the scourge of the Third World).
What is obesity?
Obesity is the medical term used to describe the state of being overweight to the point where it is harmful to your health. It is considered a disease of prosperity as it is five times more common in Europe now than it was after the Second World War, when food was rationed. The onset of obesity has significant health implications, according to Professor Michael Gibney of Trinity College, Dublin.
"Obesity is strongly related to diabetes and is also linked with increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, gall bladder disease, bone joint disorders and certain cancers", said Professor Gibney. "The incidence of obesity increases with age and the findings predict that an epidemic of adult-onset diabetes will face the health sector in the not-too-distant future", he added.
Most worrying is the rate at which obesity is increasing in Ireland. Ten years ago, one in eight Irish men were categorised as obese. In the most recent study, carried out in 2000 by the Food Safety Promotion Board (FSPB), it found that one in five men were obese. That the number of obese men has almost doubled in barely a decade is an astonishing statistic.
If it continues at this rate, in another ten years, perhaps two in five Irish adults will be obese. The costs of such an epidemic to the health service, and to Irish society and our economy as a whole are almost impossible to calculate. What is clear is that obesity is a public health disaster that is happening in slow motion, right before our eyes.
However while many people assume that obesity is a result of simply eating too much food, the reality is that our entire lifestyles can contribute to this disease.
"If we focus on diet too much, we become distracted from the bigger picture", said Dr Lean O'Flaherty, senior nutritionist with the National Dairy Council. "The amount of fat people consume in their diet has not changed that much; however more and more people are choosing to lead sedentary lifestyles as well", Dr O'Flaherty added. Her observations are borne out by the FSPB study which found that the average fat intake among Irish adults – at 37% - is roughly in line with the recommended fat allowance.
Boston or Berlin?
Tanaiste Mary Harney famously remarked that when looking to Ireland's future, she would rather look to Boston than Berlin. She may be right in more ways than one. The annual cost to the US economy of obesity-related problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and hypertension, just some of the conditions that research has linked to obesity, is now in excess of $100 billion a year, according to the National Institutes of Health. In tandem with this, $33 billion is spent on (largely useless) weight-loss products and services.
In a bizarre co-incidence, this $100 billion mirrors the amount Americans spend annually on fast food. That's more money than the world's wealthiest economy spends on higher education, personal computers, software or new cars.
While being overweight or obese were traditionally among the hazards of being over 50, the sinister new trend, both in Ireland and globally, is towards childhood obesity. There are a number of reasons for this development. First, television and computer use is displacing sports and other physical activities as the principal way kids spend their time.
Extensive TV viewing carries a double hazard: it exposes young children to countless hours of adverts for soft drinks ('liquid candy') and other energy-dense foods, such as chocolate. Research has shown that TV advertising is all-too effective in programming children into only wishing to eat sugary and energy-rich 'junk' food.
With more and more Irish families having both parents at work (and of course commuting) less time is available for home cooking and for sit-down family meals where young children can pick up healthier eating habits. So the drift is increasing towards take-away foods, often eaten while sitting in front of the TV.
As recently as twenty years ago, many Irish children either walked or cycled to school. Increased prosperity has led to most families having two cars, with children now usually ferried to and from the school gate. Parents' worries about the safety of their children on busy streets has added to this trend. In a more affluent Ireland, children now have access to pocket money that was simply not available to their counterparts as recently as the 1970s and 1980s. Much of this cash is naturally spent in the local sweet shop.
Child health threat
The threat to children's health from obesity is not abstract or distant. Until relatively recently, Type 2 diabetes was almost exclusively a disease found in the 50-80 year age group. Now, according to Dr Tony O’Sullivan of the Irish College of GPs (ICGP) task force on diabetes, "children as young as 12 are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes".
Today's parents may be the first generation to bury their own children. This is as a result of the huge toll on health and life expectancy resulting from the upsurge in childhood obesity. This concern is echoed in a recent warning issued by the Irish Heart Foundation that school children are eating too much fat in their diet, much of which is coming from high-fat energy-dense foods, such as crisps and snack bars.
If it's really all that serious, why aren't we more concerned? First, many people are in denial about their own weight. For example, in the recent major Irish study undertaken by the Food Safety Promotion Board, of the 1,000 adults interviewed, not one described themselves as obese, despite the fact that when assessed, one in eight of them were found to be clinically obese.
Major lifestyle changes are perhaps even more important than actual food consumption. The most important of these, quite simply, is that more and more Irish people are doing less and less in the way of physical exercise.
From taking the car to the shop a few hundred yards down the road to spending hours plonked in front of the television, the level of exercise that people undertake has fallen at roughly the rate that obesity has increased over the last decade. Bad habits can quickly become engrained: in a recent national study, of the men questioned who spent more than 20 hours a week watching TV, one in three said the reason they took no physical exercise is that they didn't have the time!
There are powerful commercial and marketing forces at play who profit from having much of the world's population (literally 'consumers') sitting passively in front of TV sets, eating too much of the wrong kinds of food and taking no exercise. In the US, for example, corporations have fine-tuned the art of selling food to very young children to 'condition' them to a lifetime of bad eating habits.
Child psychologists are retained by marketing companies to develop imagery for food branding and advertising based on detailed study of children's dreams – in other words, the images that children are being 'sold' are indistinguishable to them from their own subconscious.
The sales work continues in school, with many schools allowing soft drink vending machines on campus and even selling fast food in school canteens.
Eat now, pay later
The price of childhood obesity is a lifetime's legacy of poor health and significantly reduced life expectancy. The main health risks include increased risk of heart disease and stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, varicose veins, skin ailments, as well as a greater risk of joint damage (such as hips and knees) due to the extra load they have to bear.
There are also important social and psychological consequences, such as depression, low self-esteem, social isolation, low rate of marriage and problems sustaining long term relationships.
While few people with serious weight problems are likely to be able to dramatically reduce their weight, on the positive side, doctors point out that even a modest weight loss make a big difference in terms of the person's health and quality of life.
For instance, reducing one's weight from 18 stone to 16 stone might not sound like much, but in terms of your health, it could literally be a life-saving difference.
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