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“We are what we eat!?

23rd February 2007

29092006_doughnut1.jpgWe are officially an obese nation – again. Figures published recently show that the number of people who are obese in the UK has tripled over the last 20 years, and this trend is projected to continue rising.

The National Audit Office (NAO) report covering this issue indicates that a large proportion of adults in England are overweight, and one in five is obese.

The report titled 'Tackling Obesity in England’ highlights that obesity caused 30,000 premature deaths in 1998 alone. A massive £500m a year is spent by the NHS treating obesity, and it costs the economy an estimated £2bn a year. Some of the biggest ‘killers’ such as, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure are strongly associated with obesity.

The NHS also spends millions of pounds every year trying to educate the public about healthy eating to help tackle this problem. How effective it is in doing so can surely be measured by this recent report and whether the NHS ever manages to access the ‘hard to reach’ sectors of our society (who suffer some of the poorest health) is decidedly unclear. The UK now languishes at the bottom of the obesity league tables with the poorest statistics in Europe whilst our neighbour France, just 30 miles over the channel, is at the top.

Whatever people think about Dr Gillian McKeith (presenter of Channel 4’s ‘You are what you eat’) she is certainly able to attract a captive audience. The programme, which is viewed in 14 countries, manages to take a 15% share of the UK viewing audience for its slot - a massive 4 million viewers in the UK alone.

The basic message is simple; people eat ‘rubbish’ and don’t consider the amount of food they consume. This is often highlighted to the extreme with analysis of bodily fluids added for good measure. Dr McKeith does her ‘thing’ of giving ‘straight talking nutritional advice’, teaching people how to eat ‘properly’. The message is quite straightforward with the addition of goji berries and a few mung beans thrown in. How effective the programme is in getting its message across is not clear however the ever-expanding empire of Gillian McKeith food products, books, diet plans and ‘pay as you go’ internet site giving dietary advice would indicate that it has some success.

With this in mind, the Department of Death and NHS may have something to learn from both Dr McKeith and the strategies television programme makers use to get their message across. Perhaps they need to think again about how best to deal with the ‘out of control problem’ of obesity in the UK and tackle this issue in a more creative and accessible way.

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