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Now, although I frequently write about the huge health threat that comes with obesity, what I do not do is go round telling people to their faces that they are fat and, why don’t they cut down on their eating.
The reasons behind this reversal of fortunes is that with so many people now being overweight or obese, half the population now think that their body image is normal and that the skinny ones are the abnormal ones.
As you all know, this year it’s 100 years since the start of that terrible first world war, and there have been lots of film footage of troops signing up and going to the front. So far I haven’t seen one fat person signing up in all that archival footage. Fair enough, smoking was more prevalent and cigarettes part of a soldiers rations, AND they did a great deal of marching up and down. But if they introduced conscription these days ( and heaven help they never do again) then there are going to need an awful lot of XXX large uniforms for over half of the troops.
Being overweight or obese is not the norm, but the pattern for it can so often be laid down in the first five years of life and that’s where we need to focus part of our efforts to fight the trends toward obesity related Diabetes, heart disease and cancers.
I was reminded of this after reading an article in the past on “Risk factors” for heart disease and in particular a study in the US which has been going on since 1972, and which has followed a community of people to study the incidence and causes of heart and blood vessel disease. This study, which is called the Bogalusa Heart Study and which has been an ongoing study for over 40 years now, has not provided any revolutionary results but some of the conclusions need to enter the mainstream thinking of every family, every school and every community.
But first a look at what we know, and you’ve heard it all a thousand times, but Smoking remains the No 1 bad guy when it comes to vascular disease - the type of disease that leads to heart attacks and strokes. Second comes Hypertension, or high blood pressure, which needs to be measured if you want to find out whether you have it or not. Then comes Diabetes, which if poorly controlled often leads not only to heart attacks and strokes, but also to disease of blood vessels supplying the legs, and when they get blocked gangrene and amputation may follow! And finally comes raised Cholesterol, obesity, age and being white - the Bogalusa study being run in a mixed biracial American community.
In this particular study the finding that neither obesity nor raised cholesterol rank highly as a risk will be of interest to the experts in those fields and will be the subject of intense, ongoing debate. But what we do know is that:
Since the introduction of ‘Statins there has been a 30% reduction in developing the risk for atherosclerosis - the plaque that leads to heart attacks and strokes. And that people with a Cholesterol level lower than 160mg/dL do not get heart disease irrespective of what their HDL, LDL cholesterol are or their Triglycerides are.
Obesity is linked with diabetes and diabetes is a significant risk for developing blood vessel disease. It is also linked to cancers and other medical problems and remains a real focus of necessary life style changes.
In fact one of the glaring outcomes of this 40 year old trial is that childhood nutrition and obesity should be the main focus of all preventative programs. If it’s left uncorrected then it’s linked to life long health problems that are not only physical but mental, educational and social too. So that’s why the childhood nutrition story needs to be told loud and clear and repeated in new ways year in and year out. If we give our children a healthy start in life then not only are they going to be able to make the most of their opportunities, but they are going to be healthier and get less disease. And what this means is that they are not going to need the services of our fantastic, but very expensive hospital services, which are paid for out of our taxes and our insurances. So the “price” of investing in getting our kids to eat healthy nutritious food is going to be a wonderful investment in their future and in our Nations too.
So where do we begin? Well in most places the machinery is already in place and beginning to work really well.
Smoking. Nearly every child I meet hates the smell of smoke, but sadly there are a great number of teenagers to take up the awful habit and unbelievably, cigarettes are still sold as Duty Free items in airports around the world. But in most developed countires, the good guys are wining and the percentage of smokers continues to fall, but we must never relent!
Childhood obesity requires serious, sensitive handling. Childhood obesity leads to a plethora of life long health problems. The key factors of teaching, showing, sharing better ways to eat need to be tailored to the individual and to be creative. The involvement of Chefs in school programs that allow children to try foods - and these are foods that they would normally “hate” - prepared and presented in different ways so that the kids actually enjoy eating them, does have a huge impact. The widespread appearance of school vegetable gardens is another creative way of involving kids in making nutritious food choices and understanding how a healthy food chain operates..
Physical activity. Whilst not really impacting on weight itself, the direct benefits of physical activity in so many areas of life - heart disease, cancers, mood disorders and so on - mean that being active must always be an integral part of our education system.
Reducing risk is a lifelong health education challenge. We should not wait until mid-life to try and correct things that need not have occurred in the first place. So lets give our children the best tools available to build healthy lives, so that when their turn comes, then they will know how to build a great world for their children too.