One of the most frequently cited idioms in the English language is "you are what you eat". On reflection, the concept that what we consume is fundamental to our health and well-being is a pretty banal one.
Nevertheless, promotion of this concept is surely at an all-time high, as evidenced by the prevalence and size of the dietary industry - the United States weight loss industry alone was worth $59.7 billion in 2010, and this was considered to be indicative that the industry was slowing down! - the highly visible healthy eating campaigns such as eating 'five-a-day' fruit and vegetables, the televised campaign of Jamie Oliver to get healthier food into schools, the massive success and enthusiastic critical reception afforded to 'Supersize Me' and 'Fast Food Nation'; a film and book respectively that critique the fast food industry.
Why are we so fat then? According to the National Center for Health Statistics, two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, with the British Heart Foundation warning that nearly half of Britons will be obese by 2030 if current trends continue. However, this is not merely an Anglo-American phenomenon. The German government launched an action plan in an attempt to reduce spiralling obesity rates by 2020. Two countries that British people would consider to be the epitome of good food, France and Italy, have both suffered from an increase in obesity levels in recent years, with Le Figaro reporting on "The Worrying Growth of Obesity in France", and Italy has been reckoned to have the highest obesity rate in Europe. Elsewhere in Spain, a country generally thought of as being both active and in possession of an exemplary diet in Britain, childhood obesity has doubled in recent years. Even in Australia, which possibly has the most outdoor-oriented, active culture in the 'developed' world, obesity has more than doubled in the past twenty years.
Many possible explanations have been put forward for this, with some blaming fast food manufacturers. In the aforementioned movie 'Supersize Me' it was pointed out that there has been a fundamental change over recent decades, and that this correlates with the rise of the fast food industry, and its influence on the way food is produced. The companies that produce this food themselves have predictably dismissed this, instead pointing the finger at an increasingly sedentary culture. But certainly something has changed.
However, the most significant factor is not saturated fat, processed food, or an excessively meat-oriented diet, although these may all make a contribution. It is a commonly consumed foodstuff that we often don't even consider to be part of the food we eat, namely sugar, which can most accurately be blamed. And there is a huge amount of evidence pointing to this.
As well as the rapid growth in obesity, the other alarming worldwide trend which relates to food is the exponential growth in cases of diabetes, a tendency that is reflected across the world. In October, 2004, the BBC reported that diabetes cases in the UK had risen to 1.8 million, an increase of 400,000 in just eight years. A year later, The UK Diabetes Community reported on a WHO report that indicated that deaths due to diabetes in Britain could be expected to increase 25% in the next decade.
In February, 2010, the UK Diabetes Community reported on a study by the National Heart Forum which suggested that by 2020, type 2 diabetes could increase in the UK by as much as 98%. The situation has been mirrored in the United States, where the Centers for Disease Control reported that the number of Americans diagnosed as being diabetic increased by approximately 1.8 million in the year 2001 alone. As of January, 2011, the same source reports that 26 million Americans are diabetic, and 79 million have what is referred to as "prediabetes", which refers to individuals for whom blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not yet high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes. Thus, 105 million Americans have significantly higher than preferable blood sugar levels, just over one in three of the population.
The story is no different in all of the countries referred to earlier in this article, all of whom would once have been considered a paragon of good health. And the reason for this diabetes and obesity epidemic is identical; too much sugar being consumed, usually through its surreptitious addition to food.
In a BBC documentary series, the television presenter Zoe Salmon put weight on when consuming nothing but low-fat food for a month. It is believed this was at least partly due to the sugar content of the food she ate for thirty days. With all of the evidence pointing to the fact that such food is making us both fat and permanently ill, it's something we all need to consider with regard to our diet.
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