It’s true that on a very simple level, our weight depends on how many calories we eat, how many of those calories we store and how many we use. However, each of these factors are influenced by things such as our genetic make-up, the ‘obesogenic’ environment, our behaviour and our choices.
These days we have a plethora of information at our fingertips about how to eat healthily, how to be more active and how to lose weight well. Why then, are obesity levels still on the rise? Prevalence of obesity has increased from 15% in 1993 to 27% in 2015 1.
Data suggests that 58% of women and 68% of men are now either overweight or obese. Perhaps more worrying is in the increase in childhood obesity over recent years – 20% of children starting school in Reception are overweight or obese, which increases to a third by the time children leave primary school in Year 62. Twenty years ago, it was rare to see childhood obesity.
In this blog, we aim to explore some of the reasons why obesity levels are still increasing, with the aim of highlighting things you may recognise and want to change. Here are Slim & Save, we are committed to helping you improve your health and wellbeing. If you would like to know more, please feel free to have a browse through our previous blogs and articles, and contact us if you would like to know more about our programmes or discuss whether they would be right for you.
- Convenience foods
The availability of quick, easy and convenience meals, snacks and takeaways with super-size portions has soared over recent years. Food is available from practically anywhere. You can even buy a vast array of unhealthy snacks from the vending machine after your gym or swim workout – making it easy to eat more than you’ve just burned! The average calorie requirements to maintain a healthy weight are around 2000kcal/day for women and 2500kcal for men (assuming they are physically active). Whilst this calorie amount sounds high, it’s really easy to reach this with certain types of food. Take a burger, fries and shake from a well-known burger outlet for example – this can easily rack up 1500kcal in one meal! While a large latte and slice and of cake from your favourite café will likely cost you around 800kcal!
- Eating out
As a society, we tend to eat out a lot more than we used to. A simple remedy for improving the healthiness of your diet is to cook more homemade foods, from fresh, where you can control the ingredients added. Recent statistics suggest that 43% of people eat out at least once a week3. Foods will usually be higher in sugar and fat which are added to improve the flavour. The portion sizes consumed in a meal-out or takeaway are likely to be significantly greater than the size of a home-cooked meal, and you may be easily persuaded to have a starter and/or dessert in addition to the main, especially if there’s a meal deal involved.
- The rise of the fad diet
Fad diets – think paleo, raw vegan, juicing diets – we’ve all heard of them and have probably even tried them at one point or another. In a society where everyone ‘needs it now’, waiting for results is not seen an option. Unfortunately with these sort of fad diets, whilst they are often successful in the short term, in the longer term most people put all the weight on and more, meaning they weigh more than when they started.
- Anything for an easy life!
With technology expanding at a rate of knots, we are always trying to create easier ways of doing things, to save us the energy of actually doing it ourselves! Whether it’s asking Alexa to turn on the lights, ordering our shopping online, or taking the lift instead of the stairs, it’s easy to get sucked into doing less physical activity. Add to this that most of us have ‘sedentary’ jobs, and spend our leisure time in front of the TV, it’s easy to see how time for exercise can go out the window. The British Heart Foundation estimates that the average working-age adult spends 9.5 hours per day sitting down4 (e.g. working, watching TV) – this is the length of an average flight to the Caribbean! Simply being on your feet more helps you burn more calories. Doing 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (e.g. brisk walk, swimming, aqua-natal class) each day will support weight loss or ensure you maintain a healthy weight. Consider making easy choices to be more active, e.g. take a walk during your lunch break, take the stairs more, walk or cycle to work.
- We have stressful lives
Despite all that technology has done to give us an ‘easier life’, our nation is even more stressed than ever! In many families, both parents work, making it harder to find time to shop, cook, and eat healthy foods together. We worry about what we hear in the news, which makes us reluctant to allow children to ride their bikes to the park to play. Parents end up driving kids to play dates and other activities, meaning less activity for the kids and more stress for parents. Time pressures, be it from school, work, or family obligations often lead people to eat on the run and to sacrifice sleep, both of which can contribute to weight gain.
In turn, we may combat the stress we feel by ‘hibernating’ (aka being less active) and by comfort eating to make ourselves feel better. Alcohol intake may go hand in hand with this as well, and being high in calories, drinking too much alcohol can also lead to weight gain. If stress goes unchecked, it may lead to anxiety and depression, and if antidepressants are prescribed, these are often linked with further weight gain.
These days, we are bombarded with advertising around unhealthy foods – be it from TV commercials or in the supermarkets themselves. Add to this the ready availability of promotional offers found near the entrance of the supermarket (to hook into your hunger) and at the check-outs (to persuade you to give into pester power), it’s no wonder we often give into unhealthy foods and drinks. Advertising and the food industry is unlikely to be solely to blame, but certainly has a role in increasing obesity levels.
- Fatter children = fatter adults
I often hear people saying that obesity runs ‘in the family’ or ‘it’s in my genes’. Environmental influences which may predispose you to obesity can come into play before you’re even born. For example research has shown that babies of mothers who smoked during pregnancy or whose mothers had diabetes are more likely to become overweight than those whose mothers didn’t. After birth, babies who are breastfed for more than three months are less likely to be obese as teenagers than babies who are breastfed for less than three months.
Whilst there are some rare genetic conditions which cause obesity, there is no reason why most people can’t lose weight. In the majority of cases, becoming obese is more to do with environmental factors, one of which is poor eating habits developed during childhood. Childhood habits often stick with people for the rest of their lives. Children can easily become accustomed to the taste of sweet foods and drinks from an early age. These days, kids are plied with sweet snacks at the school gate and sweets are no longer limited to a weekend treat. Kids who watch television and play video games instead of being active may be programming themselves for a sedentary future.
Childhood obesity has steadily increased over recent years despite many public health campaigns such as ‘Healthy Schools’ to reduce it. Children who are overweight or obese are much more likely to continue this into adulthood, creating a ‘vicious cycle’.
We hope this has given you some food for thought, and will help you to understand that actually it's not just one thing that contributes to society becoming more overweight but likely more than one of above factors, and armed with such information hopefully we can understand and improve upon areas that are relevant to each individual.
Written by Annemarie Aburrow RD BSc (Hons) PGDip, Slim & Save Dietitian.
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