Diet blog: is fat the new normal?

Judith Wills / 02 November 2017

Have we, as a nation, given up the fight to be slimmer?

As two thirds of us in the UK are now officially overweight (with a quarter actually obese) it is little wonder that in recent years, many of us have come to view fat (if you’ll excuse the word – it’s rapidly going out of favour) as the norm.

So of course, the natural consequence of this is that most people – of all ages - who do weigh more, or much more, than they should according to official charts and for the sake of their health, now no longer feel like the odd ones out.

They are no longer the one who stands out in the crowd because of their size; no longer find people staring at them on the street, are no longer the last one picked for the football team, or the one left despairing in the fashion shop when even the largest size doesn’t fit (because of course now, sizes over a 16 are no longer ‘plus’ but are the norm, too).

It’s hard now to remember how it used to be.  Around the early 1970s, when weight problems began to become more common because food, almost suddenly, became more available, more affordable, more calorific, and activity levels began to diminish, so the ‘diet’ industry began in earnest, too.  Attendance at slimming clubs soared, slimming magazines, diet videos and books were best-sellers, supermarkets sold ‘diet’ drinks and a myriad of low-fat or sugar-free items to help those wanting to lose weight. 

If you were overweight, the option to sit back and do nothing about it was almost viewed as peculiar.  Of course you wanted to be slim!  No-one wanted to be fat.

But now – that’s all changed.  As the population has slowly grown larger in size until many more of us are overweight than are officially in the NHS’s ‘healthy weight range’, the urge to ‘do something about it’ is leaving us, too.  The latest research shows that while forty years ago, over 90% of people who felt they were overweight had tried to do lose weight, now less than half are even considering it a problem, let alone doing anything.

Why bother, perhaps some think, when everyone else is overweight too?

The situation hasn’t been helped by the unavoidable fact that most people who have, over the years, managed to lose weight, have mostly put the weight back on again.  Another very reasonable reason to say, “Why bother?”.

And the situation most certainly isn’t being helped recently by the new edict from Public Health England sent out to all doctors and nurses, saying that the word obese should not be used when talking to obese children or their parents.  And by the fact that a high proportion of GPs today are loathe to point out to overweight patients that their size could be a cause of the health problem they are discussing, for fear of causing offence.

It’s almost as if the health professionals are colluding with the public to help us give up the fight. We’re all burying our heads in the sand and only coming up for air when we feel like another takeaway.

Indeed, an acquaintance pointed out to me recently that as we are living longer and longer lives - and indeed the estimate is that by the end of the century there will be 1.5 million centenarians** in the UK, rather than the 14,500 today – that must prove that obesity isn’t the problem it is made out to be.

And yet, and yet … the fact remains that being very overweight is, according to the new research* published a month ago, the fastest growing global risk factor for early death.  (So at least we are not alone here in the UK.)  Deaths from obesity are up 11% in just a decade and one in five deaths is linked to our weight and/or what we eat.

And, perhaps more importantly, diet and weight, along with activity levels, are extremely important factors in whether or not we will live healthy, enjoyable lives as we age. 

For that reason alone, can I be a lone voice in a sea of dissent, and say – it surely isn’t too late to save ourselves from the complacency that seems to have descended on us.  There must be a way to overcome the burden of weight we now have. After all, humans lived on our planet for many thousands of years as slim, active people. We have to be able to reverse something that has taken less than a century to occur.

In my next blog I’ll be looking at how we can achieve this.  And I am sure we can.

*  Measuring progress and projecting attainment on the basis of past trends of the health-related Sustainable Development Goals in 188 countries: an analysis from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016, GBD 2016 SDG Collaborators, and others. The Lancet, Vol. 390, No. 10100. Published: September 12, 2017.

** Prof. Sarah Harper, Oxford University of Ageing.

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