Our Relationship With Food

With 61% of Irish adults now overweight or obese, why has losing weight has become harder?

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Weight is not an easy topic to talk about, yet it seems to be something we’re obsessed with. The irony is, we should be healthier than ever. Fresh fruit and vegetables are now available all year round. Good food is cheaper than it has ever been before. By law, companies are required to state what ingredients are in their food and measure it against a set limit of what is recommended daily. If we don’t know what aspartame or phenylalanine are it’s easy to Google them.

However, this fails to take into account how much easier it is to eat poorly. Food is constantly being advertised, especially to children, portion sizes have increased and food is more easily accessible. Gone are the days where chocolate was a treat once a week.  We are surrounded by fizzy drinks, fast food and supposed ‘fresh food’ which has been dressed up in green packaging, but in fact is just as bad for us.

For example there is the same amount of sugar in one can of Coke as there is in a bottle of Innocent Smoothie (although there is a difference between the artificial sugar of Coke and the natural sugar we get from fruit). Some brands of granola bar have the same amount of fat and calories as a Snickers bar.

Additionally, foods labelled ‘diet’ and ‘low fat’ often don’t just reduce the amount of sugar, salt and fat they add to their products, but add in sweeteners such as saccharin and sucralose which are just as bad for weight gain, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and put consumers at risk of heart disease and diabetes.

A large part of the problem is the ‘food lobby’. If we were to decide to eat healthier it would be corporations like Coke, McDonalds and other who would lose out, as they tend to have the most processed food. They have been able to perpetrate fraud through clever packaging and advertising which convince us things like Vitamin Water in the US are healthy, while it has even more sugar in it than Coke and has been linked with kidney problems.

Foods high in sugar, especially sweeteners, are addictive. In a University of Bordeaux study of rats who were exposed to cocaine, then given a choice between intravenous cocaine or oral saccharine, most chose saccharin.

On the other side of the equation, there is a lot of money to be gained through selling ‘miracle’ foods like acai berries, chia seeds and quinoa which claim to make you healthy and help you lose weight, despite the fact that studies done by reputable universities show they don’t really do anything.

There is millions to be made by peddling diets which promise to help you shed pounds in a few days. Atkin’s, South Beach and ‘clenses’ may help you lose weight in the short term, but anything which requires you to cut out a specific food group is no good in the long run and leads to yoyo dieting. Weight lost is bound to come back, but not the money you spent buying the book which told you about the diet in the first place.

We’ve also become more sedentary with the advent of cars and lifts meaning we no longer have to physically exert ourselves as often. It’s pretty damning that most of us don’t meet the target of 30 minutes exercise a day recommended by pretty much everyone with a medical degree. Our society seems to splitting further into people who go to the gym every day and those who barely get any exercise, without a healthy middle ground.

It’s gotten to the point where a quarter of all children, and 61% of adults, are now overweight or obese. Obesity is now killing 6,000 people a year in Ireland. The government has now launched a three year campaign in order to address the issue.

This campaign advocates giving children child-sized portions, reducing treat foods to small amounts and not every day, and replacing fizzy drinks and fruit cordial with water among other things. Former Minister for Health, James Reilly, suggested introducing calorie postings on menus, restrictions on marketing of food and drinks to children and revise healthy eating guidelines.

Meanwhile, the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland and the Irish Heart Foundation are calling for a 20% tax on sugary foods after the Department of Health estimated that a 10% tax on sugary drinks would reduce the number of obese adults in Ireland by 10,000. In France a 19.6% tax on soft drinks in addition to VAT of 5.5% is expected to raise €120m per annum.

In June 2011 the European Parliament voted against proposals ‘traffic-light’ style food labelling regulations. The traffic light system displays a red, amber or green light on the front of food packaging to clearly show consumers how the contents rate in terms of healthy eating criteria. The colour is determined by the levels of calories, sugar, salt and fat the product contains.

The Shadow Health Secretary in Britain has suggested that legal limits on how much sugar, salt and fat that can be used should be imposed on food producers. However this runs the risk of more sweeteners being put in food instead.

Perhaps what all of these measures miss is that maybe the choice isn’t between a Snickers bar or a granola bar. Since when did weight loss get so complicated? Growing up we were told to cook, not order in take-out. Have three square meals a day, don’t snack. Walk or cycle, don’t drive. Eat a variety of different foods, not just all of the same. Treats should be enjoyed, not become the norm.

We will always have weaknesses – a treat along with your lunch, take out when you don’t have the energy to cook or the of cheap but unhealthy food in the supermarket. The big problem we have is that we don’t realise how often we make these choices and then wonder why we’ve started gaining weight. The big problem with eating, as with any addition, is that we have ways of fooling ourselves that it’s not an issue. It’s time to re-examine our relationship with food.

Author: Liz O'Malley

Freelance journalist, sometime law student, political junkie, pasta addict.

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