weight loss diet
Boris Johnson’s new drive to tackle Britain’s ever increasing waistlines is welcome news because it begins to address the root cause of the obesity epidemic.
Banning junk food and drink advertising before 9pm and abolishing two for one offers on such products in supermarkets are well overdue steps to regulate against the excesses and manipulations of Big Food.
These very industries have for decades done everything possible to make their nutritionally poor, starch, sugar and salt rich products available to anyone, anywhere, at anytime. In the UK alone they spend £143 million a year on marketing confectionery, crisps and sugary drinks, targeting children and the most vulnerable members of society. This is 27 times more than the government spends on healthy eating campaigns such as Change for Life.
As a result the average Brit is now consuming more than half their calories from such ultra-processed foods, resulting in two thirds of the adult population being overweight or obese and 1 in 3 children being in the same category by the time they leave primary school.
Even the NHS has become a branding opportunity for the junk food industry, with 75pc of products purchased in hospital grounds being unhealthy. It’s not surprising that over half of healthcare professionals are also overweight or obese too.
The industry even manages to sell many of these fake foods under misleading claims suggesting they’re healthy such as “low fat”, “wholegrain”, or “proven to lower cholesterol.” As I always tell my patients, if it comes out of a packet and has five or more ingredients, it ultra-processed and best avoided.
And just like big tobacco adopted a corporate playbook by shifting the blame onto the individual to avoid any regulation, they have a tangled web of cheerleaders for what eminent US obesity researcher Professor Kelly Brownell calls “dirty tricks”.
It took five decades after the first links between smoking and lung cancer were made before any effective regulation was introduced to curb consumption because cigarette companies adopted a corporate playbook of creating doubt over whether cigarettes were harmful, confusing the public, downright denial and even buying the loyalty of bent scientists and political allies. All to protect their only interest; profit. Big Tobacco lied and millions died.
Similarly, to deflect from their own culpability in driving diet related disease the food industry has pushed the message of exercise is the best way to tackle obesity, even using the association of sport to legitimise the consumption of junk food. The main sponsors of the 2012 Olympics for example were McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Cadbury’s and Heineken. Although exercise has a multitude of health benefits weight loss is not one of them. So it’s a bizarre move that Boris has suggested that GP’s would get paid for prescribing cycling. As Boris should well know from his own experience, you can’t outcycle a bad diet.
Incentivising doctors to refer patients to slimming clubs will fail. Although severe calorie restriction which is the modus operandi of the weight loss industry can reduce the pounds in the short term, the overwhelming majority of people not just regain weight within a few years but many end up heavier than they started.
Counting calories also detracts from good nutrition. The quality of calories is way more important.
The other elephant in the room is that doctors have little training in basic nutrition, lacking knowledge, time and confidence in prescribing specific diet regimens to patients. Type 2 diabetes which as a single condition is the largest contributor to NHS costs can be sent into remission within weeks of cutting ultra-processed, starchy and sugary foods, without counting calories.
The most important message key message missing from the whole obesity drive is to just eat real food. This isn’t just to improve the health of the nation but it’s about a cultural shift back to a more traditional way of eating. Compulsory food education and cooking skills in schools needs to be implemented.
The biggest driver of reduction in smoking prevalence was taxation of cigarettes. The government by raising the price of ultra-processed foods will not just reduce consumption but will also force the industry to shift the food supply to more whole and minimally processed foods.
There’s also a very strong economic argument as sickness absence due to lifestyle diseases is costing the UK £91 billion per year due to lost productivity. Covid-19 has focused our attention once again to our poor eating habits. Excess body fat translates into a sub optimal immune system.
No one knows this more now than the Prime Minister himself. One study suggested that possibly half of the almost 50,000 deaths from COVID-19 could have been avoided if the population didn’t have such poor baseline health. Unless we act as a matter of urgency with the right measures to rapidly reverse all the lifestyle diseases associated with obesity there may be even more misery and devastation when the next pandemic comes around. Ultra-processed food is the new tobacco, so let’s start treating it that way.