Obesity is likely to affect 1 in 4 adults in the UK. Despite numerous healthy eating campaigns and initiatives to increase daily levels of physical activity, obesity continues to put many of us at risk of developing potentially serious health conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Even more worrying is the rise in childhood obesity, which has led the government to set out a plan for action.
The reasons why we more of us are overweight are complex. Last week, scientists reported that people who have a light on (such as from a television) at night while sleeping are more likely to be obese. As the researchers point out, this doesn’t necessarily mean that falling asleep in front of the television causes obesity. The people who took part in the study could also have been affected by other factors, such as having high-sugar processed foods, known to be linked to increased weight gain, in their diet.
Processed foods and obesity
The government focuses on processed food and drinks in its plan for action on childhood obesity. The plan aims to reducing the sugar content of foods children eat, and regulate the advertising of products high in fat, sugar and salt.
Food processing is useful; it can delay spoiling so that food can be stored for longer. It can also make some foods more digestible. For example, people have been making grains such as wheat digestible for thousands of years, by milling them and making them into bread. The trouble with processing may be that it affects how our bodies respond to food.
The sugar habit
Fresh fruits and vegetables make us feel full because they are high in fibre, but often processed food delivers a lot of energy quickly. When we eat it, we might not feel as full as we would if we’d taken on the same amount of energy from fresh, unprocessed food.
In fact, processed foods may be highly habit forming, with some experts concerned that sugar addictions are a significant issue. The jury is out on whether sugar is truly addictive, but the NHS does consider binge eating disorder to be of concern. The disorder is characterised by the regular eating of large portions of food until a person feels uncomfortably full, often followed by feelings of upset or guilt. It’s easy to overeat processed snack foods like crisps and biscuits.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Michael Pollan gave this short answer to the question of how to eat healthily in an article written in 2007, but if eating healthily is this simple, why are we finding it so difficult? The key may lie in Michael Pollan’s definition of “food”. In his article he makes it clear that he means whole food, like a banana or a pear, not processed food like a snack bar. He suggests that if your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize something as food, you probably shouldn’t eat it.
Might we actually stay healthier by eating more food, but less food “products”?