Sarah Says

Dr. Sarah Jarvis' health & wellness blog on Patient.co.uk

The obesity epidemic – what do we do about it?

We’re always hearing that we’re becoming a nation of fatties. But what exactly is the size (if you’ll forgive the pun!) of the problem? We traditionally measure obesity using a ratio of your weight to your height, which gives a number called your BMI or body mass index. 20-25 is ideal; 25-30 is overweight, and over 30 is obese.

In the last 30 years, the proportion of people in Great Britain classified as obese has tripled. In 1994, 14% of the population had a BMI over 30. Now it’s closer to 24% - that’s 1 in 4 of us.

Perhaps most scarily of all, our young people are getting fatter even faster than the rest of us. In under 15 years, rates of obesity among children have doubled, with 1 in 4 16 year olds now overweight or obese.

So much for the bad news – is there any good news out there? Well, of course there is. Firstly, the causes of obesity – especially among the young – aren’t unknown – and neither are the solutions. We just have to put those solutions into action.

Rising rates of obesity are all down to a change in our lifestyles. Fatty food has a lot to answer for – there’s a direct relationship between the amount of fat in the diet and the rate of obesity in almost every country in the world.

If we eat more fat, we’re probably eating less fibre – and fibre in the diet protects against weight gain. That includes fruit, vegetables, wholemeal bread/pasta/cereals and pulses. For instance, over several years, you’ll cut the weight you gain by 1.5kg (3lb) for every 100g a day of high fibre food you eat, and by another 1.5kg for every 100g of bran you eat.

Fad diets may, strangely enough, do more harm than good. Although you may lose weight in the short term, you’re likely to put it all back on within a couple of years. Cutting your intake of food very radically can also put you at risk of medical problems like thinning of the bones.

Exercise is crucial. These days, there are more gyms around than ever – but how many of us walk to the shops, or take the stairs rather than the lift? Exercise on its own may not do much to shift excess weight – but combined with cutting back on food it can stop you gaining weight in the long term. It’ll also benefit your heart and your bones. Some doctors can now ‘prescribe’ exercise – although you don’t need a prescription for a brisk daily walk in the park!

If you can lose just 10% of your body weight, you can cut your risk of dying from diabetes by over 30%; of some cancers by more than 40%; and dying prematurely by more than 20%. So what are you waiting for?

Does insomnia make you fat?

You might have thought that sleeping too much would mean you burnt off fewer calories. In fact, if you sleep for fewer than 5 hours a night, you’re a third more likely to gain weight. Being a light sleeper increases your risk of gaining weight by 15%.

This weight gain doesn’t seem to be connected to eating more, or even taking less exercise, if you’re a poor sleeper. It might affect your body’s natural hormones, which in turn decide how fast your body ‘ticks over’. Sleeping badly may also mean that you fidget less when you’re awake – an unconscious way of burning up calories.

As we get older, most of us naturally need less sleep. However, regular exercise can promote healthy sleep, and may prevent you putting on those pounds. Just don’t exercise too close to bedtime – that can make it harder for you to wind down when you do get into bed.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Posted by Dr Sarah Jarvis
Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.