our diet is dying to kill us

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At #1,375 a year per patient, obese individuals now cost the NHS more than twice as much as people of healthy weight, an Imperial College has found. This means that if everyone was of a more healthy weight, the NHS would save a staggering #14bn each year. However, taking into account the impact of people being off sick for long periods and with increased vulnerability to a range of health problems including type 2 diabetes, cancers and heart disease, the true cost of obesity is likely to be even higher.

Strange as it may seem, food has replaced tobacco as the leading cause of premature death globally. Each year, more people die in the US from illnesses caused by poor diet than were killed fighting in every war in the country’s history combined. We can only assume the UK situation is equally dire as obesity has gone from being rare to being most western countries’ dominant public health problem. And the finger of blame is being pointed squarely at ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and in the UK around 60% of our calorific intake is from UPFs.

Processed food itself is not new and is ubiquitous within our diet. Most food is processed in some way, from frozen peas to organic sun-dried tomatoes, but it is the ultra-processed variety that are the culprits. UPFs are defined as ‘industrial formulations made almost entirely from substances extracted from food constituents and synthetised in laboratories’. These include ready-to-eat/heat meals, packaged snacks, ice-cream, fizzy drinks, chicken nuggets and most fish fingers. I, for one, did not realise that a Pringle is not actually a fried potato – it’s entirely composed of reformulated ingredients: dehydrated potato, hydrolysed proteins, hydrogenated oils, emulsifiers and flavouring. Nice. The irony is that, as many actually contain less sugar, salt, butter and oil than lightly-processed alternatives, they’re actually marketed as healthy options.

It goes without saying that we love the taste of UPFs but it may come as a surprise that we also love their texture. The manipulation of texture is a large part of the problem. UPFs are invariably soft and dry as much of the natural fibre has been intentionally removed. The illusion of moisture is created with juicy gums and oils as even water content is removed in order to extend shelf life. Consequently, UPFs are both energy dense and lovingly soft, and are easily capable of confusing our ‘satiety system’ – in short, we eat them quickly and our body doesn’t know when it’s full and satisfied. Moreish and addictive is proving to be a helluva destructive combination.

So, what to do? The current ‘traffic-light’ and detailed package information system is not up to the job as it does not highlight how much processing has actually taken place. We need a system that, alongside salt, sugar and fat numbers, warns us of the level of processing. Sounds an easy step and one that is vital. Another win-win measure would be to stop the blatant marketing of UPFs to kids. And, whilst we’re at it, we should ensure everything served in our schools and hospitals is real food. It’s not rocket-science to know that the young and ill within society need healthy, nutritious food. Seems Jamie Oliver’s quest against Turkey Twizzlers was right all along, together with his long-held belief that mass education (across all demographics) in the preparation of simple, fresh meals is the way forward. That and getting hot and sweaty now and again.

America believes the solution involves a magic bullet of expensive jabs, pills and gastric surgery. I don’t. At the risk of invoking the spirit of the nanny state, we eventually need to recognise, as we did with fags, that restrictions on production and consumption have to be brought in. Past governments, of all colour and persuasion, have been in thrall for too long to the food lobby along with the tax they contribute to the chancellor’s coffers, and they need to stop us buying the rubbish that ultimately kills us. As a society we can’t afford not to.