In 1950, less than 1 per cent of the UK population was clinically obese. Today, that figure stands at 28 per cent, and 64 per cent are either overweight or obese. Added to that, nearly 10 per cent of 4-5-year olds are obese, and by age 10-11, this figure rises to 21%. What makes these figures particularly shocking is how quickly these changes have happened – forty years ago obesity was extremely rare, and now it’s one of our biggest health threats.
How did this happen? Did the British public suffer a massive collapse of willpower? Of course not. Humans haven’t changed. The food system has.
Forty years ago, we ate very little fast food, pizza and pasta were rare, and sweets, cakes and soft drinks were considered occasional treats. Meals were generally cooked from scratch at home, and we usually ate three meals each day, generally without snacks.
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, we didn’t have processed food. All meals were cooked fresh. Mum wasn’t a fancy cook, but she was a good cook, and we ate healthy, wholesome meals. She baked her own bread and cakes. We had cereal for breakfast, either Weetabix or Cornflakes and in winter, Weetabix with hot milk, or porridge. Meals consisted of meat and two veg, lots of casseroles and stews, and once a month, the ‘pop man’ would come around the estate, and if my parents could afford it, we would buy a large bottle of Dandelion and Burdock to share between us as a treat. And I must also mention the ‘shop on wheels’ that came around the estate – Mum would sometimes treat us to a Wagon Wheel. Those were the days when Wagon Wheels were big, not as sugary or sickly as they are now, and they came in a paper sleeve. Happy memories! Sweet treats were never part of our daily menu, they were occasional, and they were very modest too –after a Sunday lunch, Mum would allow us to have a Mars bar, not a whole one though, it was cut into 5 slices for the family to share. (I always wanted an end piece – more chocolate on it!) The ice-cream man would come round once a week in a horse-drawn van! Mr Scott, the ice-cream man, made his own delicious ice cream. I’ve not tasted the like since.
Over the last few decades our diets have changed dramatically – we have switched from eating real food to eating huge quantities of ultra-processed foods. Food manufacturers have come to dominate the way we eat, replacing traditional home-cooked food with convenience foods. Over time, these convenience foods have crept up on us, becoming part of our lives, depleting the nutritional value of our food and leading us to consume much more sugar than we used to.
Alongside dramatic changes in weight, in recent years we have also seen a huge rise in many other chronic, or non-communicable diseases (non-infectious), including heart disease, cancer and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease. The number of people in the UK with diabetes has grown five-fold since the eighties, and now nearly 5 million people have this condition, with many more having pre-diabetes or insulin resistance. On average, diabetes is responsible for 530 heart attacks and 175 amputations each week in the UK. And whilst deaths from heart and circulatory disease had previously fallen due to a reduction in the rate of smoking, since 2014 deaths from these diseases have been on the rise again.
This serious down-turn in our health closely mirrors the massive changes we have made to our diets in recent years. Over half the food we eat in the UK is ultra-processed, including fast foods, foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates and processed fats. The facts are surprising and shocking, and action is urgently needed.
You don’t have to be a doctor to know that burgers, steak, fries, and cake aren’t the type of food you should be eating. And yet, a great percentage of people (especially those living in developed countries) do tend to reach for these dishes on a daily basis. The Western diet is an eating pattern rich in red meats, high-fat dairy, eggs, fried foods, butter, corn, and sugar. Even more, it’s characterised by the intake of highly processed edibles, such as pre-packaged meats, canned vegetables and soups, and sugary drinks. And its negative implications go further than obesity, diabetes, coronary disease, and hypertension. Further research into this type of diet keeps bringing new evidence to light, connecting these foods with inflammation, and consequently with autoimmune disease, cancer, and mental health issues.
According to research, there are two ways in which calorie-rich fatty foods cause inflammation in the body. The first is through changing the gut flora. Simply put, low-quality nutrients feed the ‘bad’ type of bacteria in our stomach, making our intestinal linings permeable. This leads to a higher likelihood of toxins from what we ingest making their way into the bloodstream. As our body realises this threat, it jumpstarts a fighting mechanism – our immune system – therefore making us sick. The second, and more interesting, is the evidence showing that the very consumption of junk food is perceived by our body as a threat. The result: a hyperactive immune system that will, sooner or later, start attacking healthy cells. Read more about this interesting research here.
Humans evolved over some 25 million years eating whole, unprocessed plant food – nothing bad added, nothing good taken away. Food companies care about their profits, not our health. They developed processed food decades ago to improve shelf life and to hook people on their products – so that they eat and buy more – by adding salt, sugar and fat (usually in the form of added oil).
If you are uncertain about which foods are processed, and which of these are bad for you, this list might help. It’s a classification system called NOVA that was developed by an international panel of food scientists and researchers. It splits foods into four categories:
- Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: Think vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, meats, seafood, herbs, spices, garlic, eggs and milk. Make these real, whole foods the basis of your diet.
- Processed culinary ingredients: These are substances obtained directly from group 1 foods or from nature by processes such as pressing, refining, grinding, milling, and spray drying. The purpose of processing here is to make products used in home and restaurant kitchens to prepare, season and cook group 1 foods and to make with them varied and enjoyable hand-made dishes, soups and broths, breads, preserves, salads, drinks, desserts and other culinary preparations. Group 2 items are rarely consumed in the absence of group 1 foods. Examples are salt mined or from seawater; sugar and molasses obtained from cane or beet; honey extracted from combs and syrup from maple trees; vegetable oils crushed from olives or seeds; butter and lard obtained from milk and pork; and starches extracted from corn and other plants. Group 2 items may contain additives used to preserve the product’s original properties. Examples are vegetable oils with added anti-oxidants, cooking salt with added anti-humectants, and vinegar with added preservatives that prevent microorganism proliferation.
- Processed foods: When ingredients such as oil, sugar or salt are added to foods and they are packaged, the result is processed foods. Examples are simple bread, cheese, tofu, and canned tuna or beans. These foods have been altered, but not in a way that’s detrimental to health. They are convenient and help you build nutritious meals. See? Not everything in a package is bad for you!
- Ultra-processed foods: Here’s the category where almost 50% of our calories come from – and where we should cut back. These foods go through multiple processes (extrusion, moulding, milling, etc.), contain many added ingredients and are highly manipulated. Examples are soft drinks, chips, chocolate, confectionary, ice-cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, and more.
The way forward is to eat real food, the kind our grandparents would recognise – fresh foods, cooked from scratch, using simple ingredients. Avoiding foods that come in boxes, with long lists of ingredients, including chemicals and additives to increase shelf-life, and instead selecting fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, dairy and traditional fats as the basis for our diets. Making this change will help us to reverse the tide of obesity and chronic ill health.