Saturday 23 February 2019

Thinking thin but getting fat - Ireland's obesity rise

We're more body conscious than ever, spend more time in the gym, fill our fridges with low-cal foods and endlessly diet, but a damning new study puts Ireland near the top of the European obesity league. And the future is shaping up to be even worse. What are we doing wrong?

Shocking new statistics put Ireland near the top of the European league for obesity.
Shocking new statistics put Ireland near the top of the European league for obesity.
Andrea Byrne: 'Losing weight has made me a far more confident person'. Photo: Andrew Downes

Deirdre Reynolds

At thirteen and a half stone, this time last year Andrea Byrne was among the majority of women here who were overweight. Determined not to become just another statistic, the 28 year-old retail worker signed up to an online training programme, sorted her diet, and has since shed three and a half stone.

"I started putting on weight as a teenager," says Andrea from Galway. "Obviously the whole college lifestyle didn't help. I never used to eat breakfast and sometimes I wouldn't even eat dinner."

"Eventually last September I just decided to do something about it."

Shock new statistics this week show just how many more of us need to follow Andrea's lead.

Almost 51pc of Irish women and 66pc of Irish men are now classed as either overweight or obese, according to worldwide research published by medical journal The Lancet.

With the European average at 47pc, it makes us one of the fattest nations in the Western World.

And things aren't shaping up much better for the next generation.

The study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also found that 26pc of under-20s were also overweight or obese, 2pc higher than the the European average.

"Obesity is like a contagious disease," said nutritional therapist Heather Leeson, of Glenville Nutrition Clinic.

"We look around us at what our friends look like, and what they're eating, and think 'well, everybody is the same as me so it's fine', when in fact, it's not."

"In clinic, I measure people's body fat percentage," she tells, "and it's quite a tricky thing.

"They might come into me for a particular health issue, and I have to say, 'Well, actually the machine is telling me that you're almost obese'."

"It's a real shock to people."

In today's 'Supersize Vs Superskinny' culture though, is it any wonder we're thinking thin but getting fat?

Globally, the diet industry it predicted to be worth a €270bn by 2017, and the average woman spends 31 years of her life on a diet.

Yet even mannequins here are getting bigger after department store Debenhams announced it's to roll out size 16 dummies.

In the same week that Ireland was revealed to be one of the most overweight countries in the world, the High Court granted doctors permission to tube feed a 26-year-old anorexic woman, who weighs around 4.3 stone, against her will.

"On the one hand, there are people seeing these Photoshopped images of models in magazine and thinking 'that's what I want to look like'," says Leeson, "although it's not realistic unless you starve yourself.

"On the other side, we're all getting bigger, so is (dress size) 14 the new normal?"

"We're getting so many different messages," she continues. "I never cease to be amazed by how confused people are.

"People are trying to do the right thing but it's getting totally lost in translation.

"What people don't realise is some of the things that they think might actually be helping them are absolutely doing the opposite.

"Diet foods are a huge bugbear," adds Leeson. "People equate 'low-fat' with 'healthier'.

"In fact, a lot of low-fat products have a lot more sugar or sugar substitutes (than full-fat ones) so they're actually totally counterproductive.

"Some of them even have the same amount of calories as well."

With bikini season in full swing, most dieters will still be sucked in reckons Andrea: "When you're in the supermarket, you do consider low-fat to be the healthier option.

"Just because it's low-fat you think it's not going to affect your weight.

"I think a lot of people are of the opinion that the less you eat that that's going to help," she adds.

"Obviously it didn't work for me. I suppose you're willing to try anything."

Her personal trainer Pat Divilly admits that Ireland's battle of the bulge can sometimes feel unwinnable.

"We've got more low-calorie food than ever before and we're in the gym more than ever before but we've gone the opposite way to the way you would expect," says Pat, author of 21 Day Jump Start. "Ninety per cent of people who come into me say, 'I've tried everything'. They've done the low-calorie and low sugar and low carb.

"But calorie counting isn't working.

"If the shakes and the pills and all these things that people have relied on for years worked, then we wouldn't be in the position we're in."

"I think to a certain extent most diets will work," adds Pat, who runs Pat Divilly Fitness in Galway.

"But there's so much information out there that I think that's what's throwing people.

"It's easier to jump from one (plan) to another than it is to stay with one thing until you see results."

Targeted health programmes in schools and calorie labelling on menus are just two of the government initiatives aimed at getting Ireland's growing waistline under control.

The Leader of the Lancet study, Professor Emmanuela Gakidou from the University of Washington, warned: "Unlike other major global health risks, such as tobacco and childhood nutrition, obesity is not decreasing worldwide.

"Our analysis suggests that the UN's target to stop the rise in obesity by 2025 is very ambitious and is unlikely to be achieved without concerted action and further research to assess the effect of population-wide interventions and how to effectively translate that knowledge into national obesity control programmes.

"In particular, urgent global leadership is needed to help low- and middle-income countries intervene to reduce excessive calorie intake, physical inactivity, and active promotion of food consumption by industry."

As around 400 new cases of eating disorders emerge each year, chief among them binge eating, it could be time to ditch dieting altogether, said Bodywhys services co-ordinator Harriet Parsons.

"Tackling the obesity problem needs to take account of the fact that a large proportion of people who are in the obese or overweight category may have an eating disorder.

"What may be happening for them is that their relationship with food is an expression of psychological and emotional turmoil, so treating them purely from the perspective of food and diet will only serve to keep them trapped within that obesity cycle."

"When you think about how people get out of the other extreme of anorexia, if you focus purely on the food part, it's very clear to see that you're neglecting a whole other part that's working to keep that person from eating.

"It's exactly the same with binge eating disorder."

"I've been working in Bodywhys for nine years," said psychotherapist Parsons, "and in those nine years I've seen a growing acknowledgement that what we would colloquially call 'comfort eating' is actually much more than comfort eating, and to get out if requires the same amount of effort as somebody who has severe anorexia and is very underweight.

"When you have somebody coming to you who has binge eating disorder, they will have that idea in their head – which is also fed through the whole diet culture – that if they can just find the right diet and have enough willpower then everything will be fine.

"The problem is we know that diets don't work.

"One of the hardest parts of recovery for somebody with binge eating disorder is knowing how to normalise your weight without getting hooked back into that diet culture," she adds.

"One of the first things the person needs to do is to let go of the idea of dieting at all, and that in itself can be a huge task because the idea of finding the right diet is like a safety net.

"They need psychotherapy that deals with the underlying sense of self: who they are, their self worth, how they think about themselves in the world.

"Once they have rebuilt that part of themselves, then they can tackle the food part because it won't be linked with their sense of self in such an intimate way."

Even for those who aren't suffering from the disorder, it's good advice agrees nutritional therapist Heather Leeson. "Shifting the focus away from how we look to how we feel and how healthy we are is really the important thing.

"People have a real appetite for healthy eating; it's about making it simple.

"We have to reset normal and go back to basics. Instead of asking yourself, 'what shouldn't I eat?', ask 'what should I eat?'

Having beaten the bulge, Andrea is determined to stay trim.

"When you're bigger, it's hard," she says. "You can't just go into a shop and buy whatever you want.

"I'm not going to lie and say it's easy.

"But I'm delighted with my weight loss. It's made me a much more confident person."

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