Anything but fit to eat

AMERICA has officially been warned by its President that it must 'fight the fat'.The plea is a crucial one given that obesity and heart disease are now so prevalent – but it's certainly not an issue to be reserved for the United States.

By Debbie Watson

AMERICA has officially been warned by its President that it must 'fight the fat'.

The plea is a crucial one given that obesity and heart disease are now so prevalent – but it's certainly not an issue to be reserved for the United States. Debbie Watson speaks to Suffolk experts about the toughest social challenge of all.

PRESIDENT Bush has taken command of some interesting issues in his short time at the White House, but the latest presidential battle must surely be a tough one at which to triumph.


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For Bush is declaring war – on fitness (or lack of it!).

Late last month, the US leader declared that American people really ought to be taking more interest in their health and fitness.

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Using his weekly radio address, he claimed that his country could help smash the costs paid out by tax-payers, if only they took more care over their approach to diet and exercise.

And where Bush's rallying call might have sounded hypocritical coming from so many people at his age in the heart of the US, in fact, the President is considered a very perfect example of healthy living in progress.

At 55, he follows a rigorous fitness schedule which includes plenty of daily exercise.

In reality, whether or not Bush's appeal is taken any more seriously than a timely PR message, the plea is very much in need.

Not only in America, but throughout the western world, obesity is on the rise both in adults and children.

It's a problem that greatly concerns our medical experts, and a problem which relies upon the motivation of individuals in order to overcome it.

"I don't think its so much that people are ignorant of the need to eat healthily – more that they choose not to take the matter in hand," commented chief community dietician for Ipswich Hospital, Catherine Sutton.

Catherine's words blatantly sum up the sheer frustration of medical professionals.

No matter how much knowledge society appears to have at its fingertips about the consequences of poor eating, millions of us still deliberately avoid the opportunity to take our wellbeing more seriously.

"In my experience it's still very difficult to get people to implement healthy eating in to their lives," said Catherine. "Even though we're so much more aware of heart disease and other problems, people still find it hard to make the key changes to their lifestyle – like eating better and exercising more.

"We've become victims of a society where food is available every hour of every day.

"It makes it harder and harder for us to avoid food unless we are particularly disciplined. It's incredibly easy to fall in to this trap of a snacking culture, whereby we're often not even aware of what it is that we eat in the course of a day."

This, believes Catherine, is one of our biggest downfalls.

Where once upon a time the average Briton would eat at three or four set mealtimes throughout the day, nowadays, food is so readily available, and time so stretched, that we tend to abandon those designated meal times for periods of quick snacking.

Collectively, those snacks can see us submitting to a hugely calorific daily intake – one that's far less filling, nutrititious and healthy than if we were sit down to what would seem like far bigger main meals.

"The trouble is that many of the foods out there today have very high calory concentration, though they may not be very filling," explained Catherine.

"In the long term that means that we don't realise how much we're eating because we never feel particularly full.

"In fact, often we'd be better off eating a full plated roast meal than we would snacking endlessly throughout the day on snack that we think are just light and calorie-controlled foods."

Catherine insists that this is one of the major reasons that obesity has been allowed to creep up toward its current alarming proportions – that, and our seemingly oblivious attitude to exercise.

"We were far more active in the past than we are now, and that has had a detrimental effect on our health.

"Even though we have all kinds of leisure centres and gyms these days, we're also relying on cars and on machinery to take the physical strain out of daily lives.

"We do need to embrace exercise into our lives more, and any message of that kind is a very good thing."

Catherine's advice is very much supported by Ipswich sports coach Nino Severino.

As head coach of the Sports Performance Academy, he has particularly strong views about nutrition, health and exercise. He makes absolutely no secret of his frustration at the way so many young people neglect their own health.

"To be honest, it's such a huge problem that you could almost say we're fighting a losing battle," he said.

"I watch the way young people are living their lives – surviving on processed foods and getting little exercise – and I wonder how on earth it will be when they go on to have children of their own.

"Many of this young generation have grown up watching their parents opening packets rather than preparing fresh foods. They watch cooking programmes and think its purely for entertainment – not something for them to physically do themselves.

"It's an extremely worrying situation and it's going to leave us with a lot of very unhealthy adults and children."

Nino, who enforces the message of good nutrition to the young people he coaches, added: "I personally think that people are not relating bad nutrition to health problems – and that's a dangerous thing.

"They need to watch what they eat, be aware that snack items are not 'proper food', and also, just get out and do some form of exercise."

The lack of exercise among so many young people really concerns Nino and experts like him. He added: "Exercise is the thing that is going to burn up calories and keep people healthy.

"It frustrates me that so many children are literally going home and sitting playing with computer games for hours – they need to be encouraged to get active, and they need their parents to help in echoing that message."

And essentially, this is indeed the message which President Bush has issued to his people.

In his country, as many as two-thirds of the population are overweight, so, launching a US Healthier initiative last month he led several hundred aides on a run around the Washington army base.

The presidential interest is certainly a positive step toward improving America's situation, but will the UK learn to follow suit?

According to research brought out at the beginning of the year, it certainly should do.

A report by the Common Public Accounts Committee claimed that obesity is already at the point of claiming 30,000 lives every year in Enlgand and draining £2.5 billion from society.

The committee also said that, if things continue at this rate, one in five men and 25 per cent of women could be obese by 2005.

New initiatives are being brought in to help reverse this trend however. And the intention is to start the push at a young audience.

"Obesity is a very real problem with youngsters, and increasingly, so is Type 2 diabetes," commented Dr Wendy Doyle from the British Dietetics Association.

"Today's children are tomorrow's adults, so we have to take the matter seriously at their age and do what we can to ensure that this situation does not become worse.

"We need to get through to young children that snacking is not the way. Unfortunately it has become something that is associated with modern lifestyles and the only way we can break that is to take the message to children at school-age."

In schools across this county healthy food options have been brought in to canteens, and, only last month, a new computer package was launched – aimed at schoolchildren – in an attempt to encourage far better attitutudes toward eating.

The interactive CD-Rom intends to approach healthy eating in a way that is not patronising, but instead, appeals to childhood vanity about looks and sporting prowess.

It will be distributed free to every secondary school in the UK by the end of the year.

While these steps are extremely proactive, schools, parents and government and health officials will all be highly conscious of the caution needed in such approaches.

Youngsters are, according to research, now far more concerned about their weight and image than they ever were in previous generations. Consequently, eating disorders have become a far more common issue among youngsters all over Britain.

"We're very aware of that social situation, so there is a great deal of consultation to ensure that the programmes which are brought in will be effective," commented Dr Doyle. "The Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health have been looking closely at the ways to move forward, and have come up with some very interesting reports.

"My belief is that there are a lot of individual initiatives happening around the country to try and move toward a healthier lifestyle, but that they are merely isolated pockets.

"To guarantee success on this matter in the future, we simply must pull all those schemes together. We need to see an overall programme in the UK that draws together all the government departments – that's the goal which I'm very much hoping we will achieve."

The challenge is for the well-intended healthy campaigns to be focussed in such a way as to change society's thinking, without causing extreme implications to children who are already body-obsessed.

Indeed, with key campaigners as recognisable as President Bush, then perhaps it won't take too long before that message starts to slowly sink its way into our social existence.

If not, then our fatty, snack-happy, over-processed lifestyle could be turning Britain's bodies into a ticking time-bomb of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and even cancer.

The choice is yours!

FACTS:

Snacking is on the increase with one in three people now regularly choosing to eat alone rather than with their families.

The Institute of Grocery Distribution has discovered that 49 per cent of UK consumers eat pre-prepared meals at least once a week.

A recent study involving researchers from the University of Surrey found that children as young as seven believe they are too fat.

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