Why don’t health experts stop nagging about weight and let us enjoy food?

Why don’t health experts stop nagging about weight and let us enjoy food?

According to recent studies, levels of obesity in the Irish population have stabilised

Jacky Jones

It was inevitable adults and children would become overweight and obese

After years of listening to hysterical weight experts claiming Ireland will be the fattest country in Europe by 2020 (untrue but headline-grabbing), the truth has been revealed.

A study published in the Lancet medical journal this month showed that rising trends in children’s and adults’ body mass indices (BMIs) have plateaued – albeit at high levels – in many high-income countries, including Ireland.

The Lancet research analysed data from 2,416 studies, involving nearly 129 million children and adults, to estimate trends in BMIs. (BMI is calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by height in metres squared. In adults, a score of less than 18 is a sign of underweight, 18 to 25 is regarded as normal weight, scores of 25 to 30 are overweight, and scores of 30 or higher are a sign of obesity.)

Statistics for Ireland – from 1975 to 2016 – show that, in 1975, most adults and children had a healthy BMI. By 1985, more people of all ages and both sexes were overweight. This upward trend continued for another 25 years. By 2016 adult and child BMIs had stabilised. In fact, the Healthy Ireland Survey 2015 found that fewer people were overweight or obese (60 per cent) than was found by the Survey of Lifestyle, Attitudes, and Nutrition (Slan), in 2007 (63 per cent).

Health experts seem to have difficulty accepting this fact. When interviewed on radio or television about the Lancet research, did a single commentator mentioned the fact that BMIs had stabilised in the Irish population? Did any health expert say, “it’s great that Irish people are taking control of their own and their children’s health”?

It was inevitable adults and children would become overweight and obese. Humans have processed food for thousands of years: fermenting, sun-drying, preserving with salt, canning, bottling, pasteurising, and cooking. This processing was necessary as it reduced the likelihood of starvation and ensured food was available all year round.

However, from the 1970s onwards the food system of local farmers’ markets and corner shops became an industry aimed at increasing production and reducing cost. Large multinational corporations controlled the food chain, from seeds, feed, and chemicals to production, processing, marketing and distribution. Cheap convenience foods, high in fat, sugar, and salt, and low in nutrients became available everywhere.

Weight gain in the Irish population, as in every developed country, coincided exactly with the arrival of convenience foods in supermarkets. At the same time, labour-saving tools and machinery meant people expended less energy doing housework and other work. Most people welcomed convenience foods because they reduced the time and effort spent on cooking.

Few people or health experts worried about obesity. Food labelling was not as good as it is today, and shoppers were often misled into thinking they were buying healthy food.

It took more than 40 years for average BMIs of Irish adults to increase from a normal score of 23 to an almost obese 29. Children’s BMIs increased by the same proportion between 1975 and 2015. BMIs have not stabilised because of constant nagging, advice from experts, or programmes such as Operation Transformation. Government policies – including better labelling, calories on menus, and healthy school lunch policies – have helped make the healthy choice the easier choice. Processed foods now contain less fat and sugar than 10 years ago.

Although BMIs have stabilised, they are still too high in all age groups. A Healthy Weight for Ireland: Obesity Policy and Action Plan 2016-2025 report describes the actions needed to further reduce levels of overweight and obesity. It lists 10 steps, including regulating for a healthier environment and agreeing food reformulation with the industry.

The WHO favours a fiscal policy approach and a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks will be introduced in April 2018 and apply to drinks with a sugar content between five and eight grams per 100ml at a rate of 20c per litre. Drinks with a sugar content of above eight grams will be taxed at 30c per litre.

The industry has already started to complain about the tax, but the Government must not listen. This is an excellent public health measure. Even if all 10 steps in the obesity action plan are implemented it will probably take another 20 years before BMIs return to normal.

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