Food war: thinking thin, but getting fat
We weigh up what we eat more than ever before - so why are we caught up in an obesity epidemic? A new book by an Irish expert spreads the blame.
Amid the blizzard of information around healthy eating and slimming, confusion still reigns. Depending on who you ask, carbs are a fast-track to fatness; healthy oils can help shed the pounds; the 'clean' eating craze is a false dawn.
The reports come at a rate of knots, each one contradicting the wisdom that came before. All the while, the obesity epidemic continues apace. The diet-food industry may profess to be on the side of struggling slimmers, but a damning new report from the UK claims otherwise.
Authored by the National Obesity Forum and the Public Health Collaboration, it accuses major public-health bodies of colluding with the food industry. It also calls for a "major overhaul" of current dietary guidelines, noting that the focus on low-fat diets is failing to address Britain's obesity crisis.
Instead, they want to see a return to "whole foods" such as meat, fish and dairy, as well as high-fat healthy foods including avocados, arguing that "eating fat does not make you fat".
It's safe to wager that the global diet industry, worth an estimated €288bn worldwide, is not in the business of 'curing' obesity: rather, its products are designed to encourage repeat business, ergo to facilitate the 'failing' of dieters' efforts.
In his book Ever Seen A Fat Fox?, Mike Gibney, Professor of Food and Health at UCD, notes that the five-year relapse rate for weight re-gain is about 90pc.
"If (a dieter) is under supervision, that rate drops to a 50pc chance of weight gain in two years," he says. "A long-term approach needs to be taken by dieters who are conditioned to look for quick solutions."
Sheena Eustace, clinical psychologist at Dublin's Donnybrook Therapy Centre, says that weight gain is largely a physiological issue.
"The body returns to the highest weight it has known, in fact it fights to return to that. In order to keep weight off, the brain needs to be retrained."
The great irony, according to Gibney, is that while the marketing of slimming products, the dissemination of food reports and the food industry itself have all undergone a huge transformation in recent times, the human body remains relatively unchanged.
We share an enormous amount of our genes with the animal kingdom, says Prof Gibney, and with the exception of the hand of man, no other species gets fat and remains fat for life.
"It's on the behavioural side of things where men falls down," explains the academic. "Here's what a fox doesn't do: he doesn't have a first course, then a larger second course.
''We eat out of politeness, ethics, and because we don't listen to the brain's recognition of when we've had enough. The problem is partly psychological, partly neurological."
Jillian Doyle, senior clinical psychologist at St Patrick's Hospital, Dublin, adds: "We evolved in a different society to the one we live in now. During Stone Age times, the scarcity of food means that our mentality was, 'if we see it, we eat it'. That's our genetic make-up.
"In today's society, too, a certain body type is prized over another, and we're forced to override our biology using the diet method in order to achieve that. And when someone goes on a diet, food starts to become a threat. We see it as the enemy."
In other ways, the 21st-century lifestyle creates the perfect storm for an obesity epidemic.
"Years ago, we would have walked 30,000 steps (a day), and now we average around 7,000," says Prof Gibney. "If you take the average mum and dad raising a family, they'll say that happiness and contentment is terribly important.
''When it comes the conflict between healthy eating or a happy family, which one will win? If someone is laden with issues like housing and job debt and stress, how do you tell them to eat less?"
Often, food companies and major public-health bodies rarely tackle the complexity of obesity and, by extension, the need for obesity to be tackled through a multi-level and multi-disciplinary approach.
"There's no single agency out there for obesity issues," says Prof Gibney. "Single-issue initiatives like food labelling or sugar taxes make us feel good, and make us feel as though something concrete is being done about the issue, but single issues won't solve the problem. You need integrated, long-term solutions. It's a complicated area, and unless the Government decides to spend money within the community, I don't think it will work. The problem is that people have this mindset: 'If I wanted to, I could lose weight any time I like'.
"When it comes to public health, people feel it's a huge problem… just not one for them."
Adding insult to injury, Gibney writes, is the societal stigmatisation of fatness.
"If a fat person goes to the doctors, they are blamed for their fatness, and seen as greedy, lazy, undisciplined and even untrustworthy.
"We completely regard fatness as a human failure caused by selfishness. Once upon a time we regarded alcoholics in the same way, but now we are much more understanding of how difficult it is."
Prof Gibney hopes that a single agency will be created, enabling people to sift through the white noise and to access the plain facts - and psychological supports - needed to keep obesity levels low. Technology, meanwhile, is fast catching up and will soon be on the side of slimmers fully engaged in the battle of the bulge.
"Philips and other white-good companies are creating kitchen products that will really help people to diet intelligently," reveals Prof Gibney.
"People will be able to connect their home computers to their 'zappers' in the supermarket, which will in turn connect with the smart fridge in the kitchen, enabling people to organise food consumptions intelligently."
Amid the cacophony surrounding the war on obesity, the issue of personal responsibility is finally being acknowledged.
"The vast majority of people who are overweight don't know they are overweight," says Prof Gibney.
"People don't get fat deliberately, but it happens. We need to take a holistic view of society, but a holistic view of individuals, too."
Ever Seen a Fat Fox? by Mike Gibney is in shops now
St Patrick's Hospital, Dublin, runs focus therapy groups for those with eating disorders: see www.stpatricks.ie