Results from the UK Health Forum Study presented to the 22nd European Congress on Obesity in Prague last week, should be a cause for alarm amongst all Irish citizens, and also for all professional bodies who assume responsibility for public health initiatives.
The predictions that in 15 years from now 89% of Irish males are likely to be overweight, and 48% bordering on obesity, must serve as a wakeup call for a nation that is predicted to be the fattest in Europe by 2013.
The likely prospects for females are no better, with a projected national increase in overweight from 57% in 2010, to 85% in 2020, and an increase in obesity from 23% to 57% within the same time-frame.
The predictions are that females will overtake males in the obesity rankings for the first time, and place themselves at similar risks for developing metabolic disturbances, such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and allied chronic ailments.
These worrisome statistics are predictive of increased premature morbidity and risks for early mortality for large sections of the population, and have critical implications for healthcare provision and costs.
Family doctors and healthcare providers will be challenged to implement interventive and supportive strategies to counter the failings and failures of Government bodies in the face of this impending tsunami in declining health across the nation.
The head of health promotion for the Irish Heart Foundation, Maureen Mulvihill, has called on the Department of Education to publish a “HEALTHY FOOD POLICY”, given the “poor nutritional standard of food provided to scholars in our secondary schools”. (April 10 Irish Times).
Prof. Donal O’Shea, equally concerned by the questionable strategies of the food and drink industry, is justifiably critical of their marketing initiatives to young people, and of invitations to sporting celebrities to endorse food items that are devoid of nutrients and harmful to health.
The junk food vending machines in Public Hospitals is another outlet for popular dietary items that embody dangerous levels of High Fructose Corn Syrup and trans fats, proven culprits in the cause of childhood obesity and diabetes, and Prof. O’ Shea admits helplessness in the face of government intransigence to eliminate this public threat.
Ms Mulvihill reports that the health of the State’s young people is “appalling” and calls on the Government to take action, quoting the Food Pyramid as an example by which “healthy food policy” should be guided.
THE FOOD PYRAMID?
While the concerns expressed by Ms Mulvihill are valid, and well founded, her appeal to the Food Pyramid, as a guide to healthy eating, is misguided and misleading, since its unhealthy promotion of excess carbohydrates, and restrictions of healthy dietary fats, has left a legacy of chronic obesity and morbidity, for which official health bodies must take a share of responsibility in promoting its implementation in Ireland, following its introduction by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1992.
The nutritional shortcomings of the traditional Food Pyramid have long been highlighted, and the fact that it still adorns the walls of many schools and health facilities, and is currently being taught to vulnerable scholars, should be a cause for great concern, and illustrates a critical failure, by responsible bodies, to apprehend what constitutes a nutritional and health-promoting national dietary protocol.
The unwarranted fears of consuming healthy saturated fats like butter, eggs, whole milk, tropical oils and grass fed animal meat, and the public vilification of these fats by many of our leading spokespersons in the health industry, for many years, has promoted a climate of fat-phobia, with the unhealthy consequences of low fat consumption of popular products, which are invariably high in sugar content and harmful to health.
REVERSING THE TREND:
The first step in providing healthy dietary guidelines for our young people is to abolish the Food Pyramid as a guideline, and banish it from all schools and health facilities.
The abolition of vending machines which dispense harmful HFCS items should follow.
We can then start to teach the importance of healthy fats for weight management, heart protection and the reversal of the trend towards diabetes and obesity.
The recently reported attack (under the guise of “orthorexia”) on health conscious people (Irish Times 1 May), and their legitimate concerns about the nutritional content of the foods they carefully select, has the appearances of a veiled attack on the natural health industry, which remains critical of the unhealthy promotion of processed foods high in refined carbohydrates, and lacking in healthy fats, for which reason the traditional food pyramid was abolished in 2011 and replaced by the new dietary guidelines.
The characterization of “healthy food obsession as the new eating disorder” by dietitian Patrice McNamara, is misguided and unhelpful, at a time when consumers need to become more discerning and selective in their dietary choices.
The suggestions by McNamara to never remove one slice from the Food Pyramid hints at efforts, from some quarters, to reinstate the Food Pyramid as the ideal eating guide for the Irish Population.
Health conscious consumers should not be dissuaded by these tactics and are likely to experience the delicacies and health benefits of including in their regular diets the very food items that the Pyramid continues to vilify and seeks to restrict.
This must be our chosen path of action if we are to avert the predicted adverse health outcomes for Ireland.