HANNAH SUTTER: The Big Fat Lies about Britain's obesity epidemic
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HANNAH SUTTER: The Big Fat Lies about Britain's obesity epidemic
We are all getting fatter. We know this because the Government tells us all the time, in every report, health warning and advertising campaign it issues.
For the past 30 years we've been told to eat less and exercise more, to cut back on calories and on saturated fat and, on the whole, we're doing it.
Our calorific intake between the years 1974 and 2004 decreased by 20 per cent. We are eating about 20 per cent more fruit and vegetables than in the Seventies.
We are doing approximately 25 per cent more exercise than we were in 1997.
But are our waist lines shrinking? No. In fact, a quick glance around most High Streets would suggest the opposite is happening - with even young girls displaying 'muffin tops'.
This 'spare tyre' of abdominal fat is an accurate indicator of future health problems, such as Type 2 diabetes.
So what is really behind this obesity epidemic? I'll tell you.
We're following Government advice on how and what to eat, but that advice is so wrong it is actually making us fatter.
The endless message of 'eat less, do more' has never been proven using proper clinical trials.
And we've only started to get really fat since governments started promoting the current low-fat health messages, back in the early Nineties.
I'm a lawyer by training and I became convinced that the rise in obesity must be partly due to bad guidance. So I set out to look at the research studies on which government advice is based.
What I found has shocked me.
The Government's Food Standards Agency (FSA), among others, is pumping out a template of a balanced diet that is based on flawed science that I believe is responsible for thousands of people developing health problems.
The co-defendant in the dock with the Government is starch.
While we've all been brainwashed into thinking that fat is the killer we must avoid and food manufacturers bring out more and more profitable 'low-fat' versions of foods, starch - in the shape of pasta, bread, cereals, potatoes and rice - has been quietly adding on the pounds, while we are being told that it's good for us.
The problem, I believe, is threefold.
First, we are being given dietary advice that is completely out of keeping with our current lifestyles.
In a world where we sit at computers instead of toiling in the fields, we simply don't need the sort of high-energy, starchy foods we are told to eat, and certainly not in the proportions we are advised.
The central issue is that starch is converted to glucose very quickly, which then triggers the release of the hormone insulin.
Insulin triggers the storage of excess glucose into fat, which is stored mainly around our middles.
If you constantly produce too much insulin, your body goes into a permanent fat-storage mode. This means people who are overweight get into a cycle of weight gain.
The starchy foods that we are encouraged to eat at almost every meal - such as rice, bread or pasta - also contain very few of the essential nutrients we need for a healthy, balanced diet.
Because they're nutrient poor, manufacturers have to enrich them with added vitamins and minerals.
The second problem is that the Government vendetta against fats, because of their apparent link to heart disease, is based on highly debatable studies.
And third, although exercise is undoubtedly good for us all, there is growing evidence that shows sweating away in the gym won't actually make you any slimmer.
And to add insult to injury, it's hard to get any research money to counter these arguments, because most research is funded by the very food conglomerates that stand to benefit most from these lies.
So, the first big fat lie we are fed is that we should eat less.
The FSA itself says we should not eat as much, and eat fewer calories.
But while calorie-counting tells us how much energy there is in food, it doesn't distinguish between the effect those foods will have on our insulin response - which dictates how much fat we store in the body.
The FSA tells us that we should base our meals on starchy foods, and this message is repeated by the NHS and British Diabetic Association.
The FSA says: 'Starchy foods such as bread, cereals, rice, pasta and potatoes, are a really important part of a healthy diet. Starchy foods should make up about a third of the food we eat.
'They are a good source of energy and the main source of a range of nutrients in our diet.
'Most of us should eat more starchy foods - try to include at least one starchy food with each of your main meals.
'Some people think starchy foods are fattening, but gram for gram they contain less than half the calories of fat.'
But does starch or starchy food give us a significant amount of those important nutrients, which are defined as essential? No, it does not.
Starch does not contain any significant amounts of amino-acids or fatty-acids, which are an important part of a healthy diet. And most starches, in their natural state, are low in vitamins and minerals.
So the food manufacturer (not nature) adds vitamins and minerals to the food concerned.
In fact, what the Government is actually doing with 'fortification' - that's adding vitamins - is giving the general population vitamin and mineral tablets in a different form.
The Government also states that starch is 'a good source of energy'. Starch is not just a good source, it's a very efficient source of energy.
Unlike protein, which turns to energy slowly and requires energy to break it down, starch turns to energy quickly and efficiently.
This is fantastic if you intend to run a marathon, but how many of us are doing that?
By the Government's own logic, the obesity problem is to do with an imbalance between the amount of energy that we consume and the amount of energy we expend.
It is quite illogical to want to encourage a nation that is already getting fatter due to excess energy intake to eat more starch.
Remember, the Government confirms its belief in calorie-counting: 'Some people think starchy foods are fattening, but gram for gram they contain less than half the calories of fat.'
But recent studies have shown that there are serious issues with the measurement of calories as a means of weight loss.
In fact, a higher-calorie diet that is low in starch has been shown to improve weight loss, mainly because of the impact of insulin on fat storage.
Most experts agree it's the hormone insulin which makes the body store fat. Over time, people can start to overproduce insulin, which can lead to insulin resistance and eventually Type 2 diabetes.
The foods that trigger insulin are primarily starch and sugar.
People who over-produce insulin are more than likely to gain fat, particularly around the tummy - hence the rise of the 'muffin top' in the past ten years.
Surely it must follow that overeating starch is, in part, causing the obesity crisis?
Another big fat lie we are fed is that we should eat less fat.
Low-fat yoghurts, skimmed milk and cheese, virtually fat-free desserts - the supermarket shelves are full of these 'healthy' low-fat alternatives (although many are actually high in sugar) as we all absorb the Government's message to cut back on saturated fat.
The simple message is: saturated fats are high in calories and are making us fat. Saturated fats cause heart disease.
And most people believe that the fear of saturated fat is based on robust science - why else would the Government be putting out this advice?
Let's look at the scientific evidence.
When studies have been done with high saturated fat levels combined with low levels of starch and sugar, the subjects not only lost weight faster than the low-calorie, low-fat option but - perhaps more interestingly - the cholesterol profile of the subjects on the high-fat diet was better.
Which leads us to question the link between saturated fats and heart disease.
Since the Fifties, there has been an unrelenting wave of studies trying to prove this connection.
By the Eighties, we had a consensus of opinion that the connection between saturated fats and heart disease was sufficiently compelling to start issuing dietary guidelines.
At this stage, there had not been any major clinical trials clearly pointing the finger at saturated fat. However, in 1984, the Lipid Research Clinics Study was published.
This was a study looking at cholesterol-lowering drugs and the incidence of heart attacks.
While it showed some benefits from cholesterol-lowering drugs, the assumption made by the researchers was that if you eat a diet low in cholesterol, that would have the same effect as taking cholesterol-lowering drugs.
This conclusion prompted various agencies in the U.S. to start a campaign to lower the amount of saturated fats in our diet.
At no time did this study look at the effect of saturated fats on heart attacks or heart disease.
So, on the basis of a study looking at drugs lowering cholesterol, we ended up with a message to eat less saturated fat.
This plea for sanity over the advice on fats is not a lone cry.
Several very influential experts such as Dr Laura Corr, consultant cardiologist at Guys and St Thomas' Hospital in London, and Dr Michael Oliver, from the National Heart and Lung Institute, have asked those in power to stop propagating an unproven message.
Where does the FSA find such certainty among the pile of published science which is not conclusive in its findings?
In fact, there are some statistics showing quite the contrary, especially when mixed with a low- starch and low-sugar diet.
One report looked at 27 individual studies into the link between fats and heart disease and no link could be found.
The largest study on lifestyle factors and heart disease was published in The Lancet medical journal in 2004 and it did not list saturated fat as a factor.
We really need more clinical studies looking at saturated fat in our diet with and without the effect of starch and sugar.
But, unfortunately, the world of health is now so obsessed with the fear of saturated fats it won't even let us carry out trials.
Back in 2004, I asked a well-known research body in the UK to carry out a clinical trial into saturated fats combined with a high and a low-starch diet.
But I was turned away with the explanation they would not get ethical approval and they claimed no one wanted to know more about saturated fats anyway.
And the other lie we are fed: exercise more.
There is no doubt that exercise is an excellent tool for weight maintenance and is fantastic for our general health.
But what is really misleading is the idea that exercise will significantly help you to lose weight.
I attended the European Obesity Conference in 2006, at which Sir Neville Rigby, the former director of policy on the International Obesity Taskforce, referred to several major European studies showing categorically that exercise had no significant impact on the weight of the participants.
Since the conference, one of the studies that has added fuel to the doubters' fire is the Early Bird Study in Plymouth.
This lost its Government financial backing because it showed that exercise made no difference to the weight or weight loss of children.
In a significant study carried out by the World Health Organisation into the obesity problem in the U.S., it was concluded that exercise is not a factor of any influence.
The UK Government has suggested that to stop further weight-gain and help reduce weight, people need to do about 60 to 90 minutes of light exercise a day.
The average person with children and a job will, realistically, struggle to fit in this amount of exercise every day or even every week.
A little bit here and there is not enough to make any real difference to weight loss, especially if you are on a starch-rich diet.
So the Government's advice to eat a starch-rich, low-fat diet and to exercise more is based on inconclusive science, while the evidence we see all around us is that we are getting fatter following this advice.
It's time for a wholesale review of the way in which we eat, and one that doesn't rely on the vested interests of cereal and food manufacturers to provide the funding for proper clinical trials.