Not Rocket Science but Rocket Salad: food makes you fat

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Food is in the headlines again because of the ‘f’ word – ‘f’ for fraud not fat although there is a link between the two.

Generally someone gets fat by eating like a horse – or even eating horse it would appear although it’s not done to accuse those who do of over-eating. Neither is it polite to describe fat people as fat. The accepted term is ‘obese’ from the Latin obesitas meaning fat or corpulent (very fat) while ‘fat’ is from the German ‘fett’.

 Fat is a delicate issue not well handled by our health services. With so many illnesses linked to diet it is perhaps strange that visits to GP surgeries and hospitals are not accompanied by more careful scrutiny over our eating habits when the tendency is to treat patients (or are we all clients nowadays?)  with a sticking plaster therapy rather than looking to prevention – although curiously they are happy to infantilise us with references to poo meaning faeces, tummy for abdomen or stomach, mum for women or mother, down there (how far?), waterworks for urine, ladies’ problems.

Scotland’s NHS has spent £4.4 million on extra wide beds for our tubby patients – but I’m straying from the issue. 

Some people can eat anything without putting on weight but most do not fall into that category. Call me cynical but when a fat person tells me they don’t eat much frankly I just don’t believe them. However little it might be it’s not little enough for the energy they expend.

Not so long ago there was talk about food becoming too expensive and now it’s that food has become too cheap. Looking around supermarket shelves and it is apparent there is a lot of very cheap food out there. Grazing compulsively throughout the day and half the night on this cheap food is pretty well the norm.

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Do we need half the food we shovel down our throats? Wouldn’t it be better to eat less but eat better quality foods? Grazing seldom consists of apples and carrots but is more likely to include a range of sugary, salty and fatty concoctions. Look at photos and films from a few decades ago to see how the human shape has altered. Society is expanding in all kinds of ways. Between 1995 and 2010 adults between 16 and 64 categorised as obese or overweight increased from 52.4% to 63.3%.

The average size clothing for women in the 1960s was 12 and now it’s 16. We eat twice as much sugar as we did in the ‘60s and 40% of what we eat is fat. We drink alcohol like never before. Do you know how many calories are in that glass of wine in your hand? 250.

That slimmer population of the sixties ate less than we do today. People earned less. They cooked at home and rarely ate out. Fewer cakes and biscuits and sweets were consumed. Less alcohol was drunk. Fewer people had cars so walked far more. People were far more active. Work tended to be less sedentary. What calories were consumed tended to be expended in the natural course of the day’s activities.

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There are different means of tackling obesity. The most straight-forward is for individuals to acknowledge the shedding of weight amounts to nothing more complicated than eating less, eating smart and by exercising. It is not rocket science. There cannot be anyone in this country who does not know that eating too much is not a good idea. I refuse to believe anyone thinks loading themselves with sugar or fat is going to do them any good at all. We all know it just tastes fine so we want it – often. And while we’re happy to stuff ourselves we’re less enthusiastic about being active in any meaningful way. How many obese track athletes do you know of? Or competitive cyclists? Or swimmers? It’s like rolling stones and moss. People who keep on the move don’t get obese.

Hint: keep your mouth shut between meals.

That is not the whole story. The ‘food’ industry must take some blame, and supermarkets with aisle upon aisle devoted to sweets, biscuits, cakes, crisps and sugary drinks. Call that food?

In June 2008 the Scottish government launched its £56 million Healthy Eating, Active Living initiative and in February 2012 along with COSLA initiated the Healthy Weight Route Map. And what do we find? This long term obesity strategy exudes the language of failure –  ‘we cannot expect people to be able to change their behaviour alone ‘ – yes we can and that should be the ambition.

So what did the Government and COSLA decide were key areas for action?

  • reducing demand for and consumption of excessive amounts of high calorie foods and drinks
  • increasing opportunities for uptake of walking, cycling and other physical activity
  • establishing life-long healthy habits in children
  • increasing the responsibility of organisations for the health and wellbeing of their employees.

All sound enough but what does it mean in practice? Reducing demand for fatty and sugary food and drink – doesn’t that take individual effort? How can a government body do that? Increasing opportunities for walking etc – people who shuffle along the pavement probably imagine they are walking. I sincerely hope this route map works. We’ve seen route maps before that led nowhere.

Remember the Diet Action Plan in 1996? No? Perhaps because it failed.

Most Scots do not even eat the basic 5 pieces of fruit and vegetable a day yet we know that would be a start to improving the nation’s health. Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard the message to eat more fruit and veg? Isn’t part of the problem selective deafness?

Cheap food is a threat to health. People purchase it for different reasons from low incomes to the draw of grabbing a bargain. Cheap can mean it’s possible to purchase more  so consumption rises and the excessive intake of calories or carbs isn’t burned off but is stored as fat.

Naturally other causes of obesity beyond over-eating have been explored such as biological, psychological, cultural etc but according to a piece in The Lancet ‘affordable processed food’ is ‘the most powerful driver of recent increases in obesity’.

Sedentary life styles play an important part as well. Many of us sit down for most of the day – and most of the evening. As a species we’ll probably have lost our legs in another couple of million years or they’ll have become tiny vestigial limbs lost beneath the blubber.

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Cheap food is bad for us and regarded as a major reason why so many poorer people are overweight. In a Scottish Health Survey on obesity in 2011 it was found that men between 35 and 64 were more likely to be obese than women of the same ages while women between 16 and 34 and 65- 75+ were more likely to be obese than their male counterparts.

Women it appears are involved in a causal relationship with obesity when it comes to their partners; single men are less likely to become obese than men in partnerships. And while smoking generally is linked to low BMIs women smokers are likely to be abdominally obese.

http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2011/10/1138/0

The Scottish Public Health Observatory tells us that 28.1% of Scottish women and 26.6% Scottish men are obese. This makes Scots fatter than the average person in the UK at 23.9% and 22.1% respectively.

http://www.scotpho.org.uk/

I have a suspicion that the more people spend on their designer kitchens the less likely they are to cook in them. The apologists tell how little time we all now have to cook. Utter nonsense. We all have plenty time to cook we just choose to spend that time driving to the nearest takeaway or restaurant or hanging around for the pizza delivery to arrive.

Scotland spends £457 million a year and rising on our health service. Some of that spending goes to treat the results of over-drinking, over-eating and smoking. While poverty doesn’t do you any good in the diet/obesity stakes it is not straight-forward.

Coatbridge is said to be the fattest town in Scotland which means the fattest town in Britain given Scotland’s dire reputation for obesity. The FT of 5 May 2012 blamed the ‘battered pizza and deep-fried Mars Bar’ that can be bought for a fiver – cheap and filling and junk. A fiver is hardly going to break the bank for most of us but when you consider the food value of the pizza and the Mars Bar it’s way too much. What could you cook up at home for a fiver a head? – something pretty fine and nutritious that’s what even when the cost of cooking is taken into consideration.

Speaking to someone recently whose work takes her into the homes of low income families she mentioned how depressing it was to see how much they often spend on ready meals and have no idea about basic cooking.  It’s not only that this is the most expensive way to live and stretch small budgets but you have no idea what food manufacturers are putting into the food we shovel down our throats. This has become all too apparent recently with horse flesh appearing to be the additive of choice for just about everything sold in supermarkets.

Being unemployed by itself is not a reason for eating badly. Being unemployed means you have time to cook properly – having the motivation is something else.

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It is regrettable that people have become so disconnected from food. Despite the huge arrays of offerings from around the world and wall-to-wall cookery programmes on the telly people are often content to tread a food rut, not in the least curious about trying things – ‘I don’t like vegetables’ – what every one of the multiples of thousands of them?

Too many of us rely on someone else to feed us. There will be plenty companies more than happy to step in and sell you rubbish which fills the belly but in the end it will do you no good whatsoever. Their motive for going down the junk food route is profit what’s yours?

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If you’re now thinking gym you’ve missed the point. If you can afford to go to the gym you can afford to eat better but eat less. In this country we spend just over 11% of our income on food whereas the Germans and Spanish spend nearly double that. Why do we expect food to be dirt cheap? Look around at the amount of consumerism most of us indulge in. We expect to pay for our adult toys but for the basics we grudge a few quid more.

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‘It takes an effort to get in and out of the grocery store with your health intact’ –Michael Moss author  Salt Sugar Fat

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