The State of the Nation’s Waistline

This is the title of a report out today, produced by the National Obesity Forum , and widely publicised in today’s TV news and newspapers. It warns that previous predictions of future obesity (the 2007 Foresight Report: that 50% of the UK population will be obese by 2050, at a cost of £50 billion a year to the NHS) are too low an estimate.

The chairman of the National Obesity Forum, Professor David Haslam, concludes that current policies to tackle obesity are inadequate, and that hard-hitting marketing campaigns (similar to recent anti-smoking campaigns) are required, alongside a range of other measures. “The current situation is unsustainable”, says the NOF report.

As a personal trainer in London with obese clients, I think that even the National Obesity Forum’s recommendations don’t go far enough. The problem of obesity in this country is the result of a whole range of problems, which require all the recommendations of the NOF to be put into effect asap, but more in addition needs to be done if we’re to become a healthy nation. The UK in 2014 is a deeply sick nation, and getting worse every year.

Widespread poor nutrition

A large proportion of the UK population are making unhealthy food choices, concludes the NOF. There is ignorance about nutrition, and the effects of poor nutrition. There is also ignorance about proper hydration, and excessive consumption of sugary drinks.

Government policies inadequate

Current government initiatives such as Change4Life, and the Public Health Responsibility Deal (a voluntary code for the food industry to reduce sugar & salt levels) are inadequate, says the report. Same goes for the 2011 initiative, Healthy Lives, Healthy People (which aims to reduce national energy intake by 5 billion calories a day).

When I first saw this 5 billion calorie target, I knew that this government had completely lost the plot, or had no real intention of tackling the root causes of obesity. Nobody is measuring these calories, there’s no distinction between calories from different food groups, or any distinction between calories from healthy vs junk food, the list is endless.

NOF recommendation: hard-hitting marketing campaigns

In recent years there have been some superb advertising campaigns to warn of the dangers of smoking, and the NOF suggests a similar approach with obesity. However, the report doesn’t suggest any specific examples of the “hard-hitting” campaigns they would like to see.

I suggest that positive campaigns would be good, such as “drink more water and less sugary drinks” would be a great start. The campaign could show the effects of high-sugar drinks: tooth decay, type 2 diabetes and how it leads to lower leg amputation in extreme cases. Another advert could show a morbidly obese person struggling to lead a normal life, stuck in bed looking out of the window at people leading fulfilling active lives.

NOF recommendation: more proactive GP’s

The NOF calls for better GP training in weight-management, and engaging with patients about their obesity. There is a trend among GP’s to only treat medical conditions with drugs, and the NOF calls for GP’s to take the initiative and recommend practical steps overweight patients can take (exercise and healthy eating) to achieve a healthy weight.

The NOF also recommends more GP-referrals to weight management specialists, who support obese people over the whole period of their weight-loss efforts.

And instead of just measuring BMI (body mass index), the report recommends that GP’s measure waistline circumference as well. Visceral fat, which is stored in the stomach area, is the most dangerous fat, and measuring waistlines is a very simple and effective way to monitor this. If the waistline exceeds a certain measure, then GP’s should give advice and if necessary refer to specialists for further support.

NOF recommendation: re-launch the ‘eatwell plate’

The current ‘eatwell plate’ (you’ve probably seen posters of the eatwell plate in GP surgeries, health centres, and on the NHS website) is totally inadequate, and the NOF has recognised this. It recommends that the chart encourages more water drinking and less sugary drinks, less carbohydrate consumption, and a distinction between different fats.

I would go further and re-design the eatwell plate so that people are advised to eat a lot more vegetables, and certainly more veg than fruit. And remove all processed and junk food/drink from the eatwell plate altogether. It’s not hard to tell that the junk food industry is part of the advisory panel which designed the current eatwell plate.

NOF recommendation: encourage more water drinking

A report in Nutrition Today (July/August 2012): “First Findings of the UK Fluid Intake Study” found that as a nation we drink too little water. Inadequate hydration was found in 30% of adults and 50% of children.

Drinking pure water enhances brain function, kidney function, exercise performance, bowel function, and the body’s ability to burn excess fat. Yet the population drinks too little water and too much processed sugary/fizzy drinks. (As a personal trainer in London, I’ve experienced first hand from my clients the widespread misconception that fruit juice and smoothies are healthy options.)

The problem with high-sugar drinks is that they lead to tooth decay and gum disease (acidity and bacteria from the sugar), cause an extreme insulin reaction which increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, and causes excess body-fat (excess carbohydrates, particularly from sugar, converts very easily to body fat). In addition, fruit juice has no insoluble fibre. Insoluble fibre is crucial for bowel health, and as a nation we eat far too little fibre, because we eat mainly processed sludge (my words, not the NOF report).

NOF recommendation: more physical activity, particularly for children

Current government advice is for adults to do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week. Currently only 5% of the adult population achieves even this bare minimum (Source: Health & Social Care Information Centre, “Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity & Diet” Feb 2013). The NOF recommends a range of measures to get people more active, but not enough in my view.

As a personal trainer in London, I’ve helped many obese people to reach a healthy weight, and get fit, through healthy eating and regular exercise. This report by the National Obesity Forum makes many valuable recommendations, which I very much doubt the government will implement. My next blog will outline some of my own recommendations, which go beyond the NOF’s suggestions.