Carbohydrates are currently taking the greatest heat for the escalation of obesity worldwide but is this blame game working?
The greatest cost of the global obesity epidemic is yet to be felt. Obesity is a risk factor for a multitude of health complications meaning a health crisis far greater than the present number of obese individuals is looming… the multiple consequences of obesity multiplied by the growing number of overweight and obese individuals. We need a solution and we need one fast. Simply identifying an excessive intake of carbohydrates as the cause of obesity is not going to reduce obesity. Merely encouraging people to cut carbs from their diet is not going to reduce obesity. What needs to be addressed is the food related behavior resulting in the consumption of energy dense, nutrient empty diets … a recipe for obesity.
While the key to including carbohydrates in a healthy diet is to choose only those carbohydrate containing foods that offer nutrient benefit in addition to energy, this is not common practice among people classified as obese. As a dietitian I have had many an opportunity to assess the food intake and eating practices of obese individuals struggling to achieve weight loss. In my experience, it is seldom that such a person has a healthy relationship with food, practicing healthy eating behavior and making nutrition the priority of their dietary intake. Many of these individuals report to have cut out all carbs, most of them with insufficient knowledge of the extensive presence of carbohydrates naturally occurring in many foods, only to follow up a meal free from potato or rice with a couple of biscuits or a rusk, both a carbohydrate source far more offensive than those avoided.
Simply broadcasting the evils of carbohydrates with the recommendation of banishing them from ones diet does not help people lose weight. This is not good nutrition education.
Other obesity triggers:
Furthermore, in addition to a general lack of nutrition knowledge, digging deeper into the eating practices of people battling to lose additional fat mass reveals;
- the regular skipping of meals, most commonly breakfast
- habitual fast food consumption,
- a lack of dietary fibre,
- inadequate inclusion of fruits and vegetables,
- sugar usage far above what is recommended
- eating out often
- regular use of alcohol or sugar containing beverages
- too many hours spent sitting at a desk
Stress, lack of exercise, poor sleep, insufficient exposure to vitamin D producing sunshine and an excessive reliance on technology are worth adding to this list of obesity causing offenders.
As there is so much more to the cause of obesity than the consumption of carbs alone it stands to reason there is more to the obesity solution than simply shunning carbs. Poor eating behavior, such as skipping meals, results in the skipping of vital nutrients required for optimal metabolic functioning and blood glucose control. Addressing the eating behavior of obese individuals and at risk populations at large has a massive role to play in the treatment and prevention of obesity. The government and food industry can have a great impact on the obesity crisis by increasing nutrition education in schools and encouraging individuals to make healthier food choices with cost effective options. It is nice to see many shops removing sweets and chocolates from the isles at the cashier points, but healthier convenience food products (health sandwiches) are often in excess of twice the price of their non-nutritious substitutes (pies and pastries). Many people have to make budget based food choices.
Individual responsibility is also important. Taking stock of and addressing any obstacles to leading a healthier life is an important part of obesity management. The solution may just be simpler than imagined:
- securing a midday break for a lunch meal and a leg stretch
- menu planning or weekend food preparation.
- avoiding the office canteen or vending machine
- packing a healthy sandwich or salad
- waking up 5 – 10 minutes earlier to enjoy a breakfast
- removing temptations at home
- shopping less regularly
- cooking at home more often
This list of solutions is far greater than a single nutrient. Poor eating habits and neglect of good nutrition cannot be blamed on carbohydrate alone. A balanced diet rich in the wide variety of nutrients required for health will never be high in carbohydrates.
Solving the obesity crisis is not in the impossible exclusion of foods that will continue to be available, affordable and widely accepted. The answer lies in teaching people which foods they should be sure to include. Promoting the eating (and enjoyment) of regular meals rich in nutrient value, namely fibre, lean protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals is surely an achievable and sustainable treatment for obesity.