17 November 2009

Weight-loss lessons from the UK

The British Government has realised how grave the threat of obesity is and has come up with initiatives to combat weight gain. We can definitely apply these principles too.


Nutrition is always an exciting topic. So, when I came across an article on "Hot topics in nutrition: drivers for change", by Prof Judith Buttriss of the British Nutrition Foundation, I was interested to read what she suggests people in the UK should do to improve their diets.

As is the case in most western countries, and also in South Africa, the UK population suffers from serious increases in overweight and obesity. A third of children and two-thirds of adults are already overweight or obese, and predictions for the future paint a grim picture.

It's estimated that by 2050, 90% of adults and two-thirds of children will be victims of the obesity epidemic. The fact that obesity is linked to degenerative diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, arthritis and other debilitating conditions makes the future seem bleak indeed.

Prof Buttriss emphasises how important it is to assist people in terms of weight loss: the risk for type 2 diabetes can, for example, be reduced by 50% simply by losing weight.

UK action campaigns

The British Government has realised how grave the threat of obesity is and has come up with a number of initiatives to combat weight gain. A programme called Change4Life was launched at the start of 2009, which is designed to support young families in England to “eat well, move more and live longer”.

This programme encourages parents to act as good role models for their children when it comes to eating healthy foods and being more active, something that I have been encouraging Health24 readers to do for many years.

Lessons learnt in childhood stay with us for our entire lives. If you can teach your children good eating habits and an active lifestyle when they're young, you'll have contributed to their long-term health and possibly also to the health of future generations.

Prof Buttriss points out that this is the first time that the health authorities in the UK are also targeting the importance of being physically active. She recommends the following activity schedules:

  • Adults – at least 30 min. of moderately intense activity on five or more days per week
  • Children – at least 60 min. on five or more days a week
  • Adolescents – at least 60 min. on five or more days a week
  • Anyone trying to lose weight – at least 60 min. on five or more days a week

The recommendations for children, adolescents and slimmers is double the amount of time that was previously recommended, which indicates just how seriously health experts are taking the problem of inactivity, and its contribution to weight gain.

Be Active, Be Healthy
Another campaign initiated by the Government in the UK is the “Be Active, Be Healthy” programme that aims to change a nation of couch potatoes back into healthy, active people.

According to Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State, this will help to “transform communities and help us build a fitter, healthier and happier nation.”

This type of action is long overdue in South Africa and one can only hope that our government will put their weight (excuse the pun) behind a similar initiative to get South Africans back to being active and healthy.

Healthy ageing
A recent report issued by the British Nutrition Foundation Task Force on “Healthy Ageing: The Role of Nutrients and Lifestyle”, emphasises that we can all influence how our bodies age by making sensible changes to our diet and level of fitness.

It's important to note that while it's never too late to start a healthy diet and become more active, such efforts should ideally already start at a young age.

Most young people regard anyone over 30 as ancient, and probably can't imagine that they'll also be old one day. So it requires a great deal of motivation to make young people aware of the fact that if they start with healthy eating and plenty of physical activity while they 're young, and continue with these two major lifestyle factors for their entire lives, they'll actually enjoy being oldies. They'll be healthy and fit, and not frail and ill.

Health risks of saturated fats
In February, the Food Standards Agency in the UK started a campaign to make the British public aware of the health risks associated with high intakes of saturated fat. According to surveys, the British public eat 20% more saturated fat than the recommended maximum.

The campaign includes a variety of practical steps on how to reduce the amount of saturated fat people eat. Use is being made of TV ads, which are always a powerful tool to transmit messages.

It's only logical that if we're being bombarded by TV ads that encourage us to eat fast food dripping with saturated fat and trans-fats (which are believed to be even more harmful to the heart than saturates), health authorities need to fight the enemy with ads in the same media.

The South African perspective
Considering the proactive steps that the British government is taking to alert their population to do something positive to their diets, their activity levels and their health in general, I would like to see similar campaigns launched in South Africa. It's time that our Department of Health also addresses the many nutrition-related issues that plague our country.

But this isn't as easy as it sounds. South African nutritionists and policy makers are faced with a double burden. On the one hand, a staggering number of South Africans live below the bread line and suffer from malnutrition, stunting and growth failure, while on the other hand our obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease statistics are increasing exponentially.

Despite this dichotomy, I firmly believe that our government and the Department of Health need to hold an Indaba to prioritise getting the message of healthy eating, weight reduction and increased physical activity to those members of our population who are at risk of developing diseases of lifestyle.

Let’s develop our own programmes and TV ads to educate our nation about healthy eating and being fit. The benefits in the long-term and the savings on health costs will more than justify such campaigns.

(Dr I.V. van Heerden, Health24, November 2009)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

(Buttriss JL (2009). Hot topics in nutrition: drivers for change. British Nutrition Foundation. Nutrition Bulletin, 34:119-121)


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