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Obesity: Is it a big problem?

Philip McTernan, Associate Professor, Warwick Medical School

Published January 2014

Whether you have an interest in obesity or not, not many people can have escaped the media coverage on this subject. Multiple programmes on weight loss, following people through challenges and medical related problems with obesity, diet TV programmes and even the news itself.

Both national and local news tell us how fat we are getting regionally, nationally and where we fit in the international league tables. It appears clear, like it or not, as a population we (in the UK) are all getting fatter. The obesity epidemic is not only causing issues for us and our children but it is even affecting our pets!

BurgerAs an associate professor at Warwick, I have spent considerable time studying what happens to our health when we do put on weight and ways to combat it. In my early research days I used to be cautious when speaking to audiences about obesity, in case someone with extra weight in the audience might think I was being moralistic about health concerns associated with gaining weight (which I never would) or that the audience as a whole might believe I was discussing a ‘non-issue’. However, I soon realised that there is a problem; nearly everyone thinks there is someone larger than them. Even the lady who holds the Guinness World Record for being the heaviest woman in the world was filmed saying that there is someone larger than her out there and she is probably right. But are we all missing the point here?

In recent years our sense of who has an ideal weight has shifted without us realising. Most of us might think we are all fine; surely the person next to me in the supermarket checkout queue is bigger, they should worry, not me. But this cannot be true; in fact more than 50 per cent of us in the UK are overweight. So, in a family of four, two in that family should, statistically, be overweight. Even some that might have a BMI of less than 25 (considered healthy) could still be a risk of health issues, if they carry some excess weight around their abdomen or tummy fat. This is particularly true if they are of South Asian origin. Also, to complicate matters further, it now transpires there is a small group of people that are classed as obese (BMI>30Kg/m2) who could be metabolically healthier than someone who is deemed 'overweight'. When it comes to health, life isn't always fair. In general though, more fat on the body does mean more health issues but the point at which this may occur doesn't have to be as large as you might think. I would not endorse becoming ‘stick thin’, as not enough fat on the body can also cause health problems.

We need to consider our own weight, not the other person in the supermarket checkout queue or the people on TV.

Quick tips to start making that change

  • A simple change in the diet, to begin with, is a good way to fight back. Try replacing a chocolate bar with a piece of fruit. This might seem trivial but consider this; the average fruit portion is around 60kcal whilst the average chocolate bar is 200Kcals. So the average reduction in calories will be 140kcal a day if you made the swap and that’s before considering the other health benefits. Now if you made this swap five times a week that equates to around 700kcal saved per week, which becomes a whopping 36,400kcal in a year! You could lose roughly 4.7 kilograms in a year (a little over 10 pounds) as long as you burn 140kcalories more than you need each day.
  • Don't tell yourself you’re on a diet as this can often make you feel more hungry and you end up eating more
  • Don't try to reduce your weight by missing regular meals. Your body knows what you will be up to and tries to store more fat when you do eat. Whether you know it or not your body is very clever when it comes to storing fat. The human body has had two million years to work out how to survive, so don't be surprised if you cannot fool it!

Find out more about Warwick’s Medical Research and how you can support this work.

Dr Philip McTernanObesity is on the increase worldwide and in the majority of cases this increase will lead to type 2 diabetes. At present, 50 per cent of the UK population is overweight and this percentage is set to increase.

Dr Philip McTernan is part of a team, at Warwick Medical School, which works on several of these factors to examine how they impact on the progression of the disease and its complications, such as hypertension and the risk of heart disease. The team performs both clinical and laboratory patient-based studies, assessing the effects of risk factors on fat as well as the role of drug treatment on reducing pathogenic factors produced by fat.

The studies aim to provide a deeper understanding of how present drug and or diet intervention impact on our health with particular emphasis of how human fat cells may contribute to this risk. The team looks into ways to decrease risk imposed by obesity and type 2 diabetes. The multidisciplinary team works across several cross-clinical specialisms and academic departments (Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Systems Biology). Key research includes studies into the role of inflammation in the progression of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus; how our gut flora may impact on our health and the influence of both medication and inflammatory factors impact on human fat cell metabolism.

Image: Big Burger by James (via Flickr)