The Obesity Epidemic

12 Feb 2016

At face value it seems we have everything we need, suggests Professor John Prins, Director of Mater Research Institute and final commentator for the 2015 Global Leadership Series (GLS).

His GLS presentation on the obesity epidemic was a sell out, and offered some thought-provoking, evidence-based and sometimes controversial (despite its scientific roots) information.

“We have ready access to healthy, nutritious food; there are multiple gyms in most suburbs,” said Professor Prins.

“At face value it seems we have everything we need to live a healthy and active life, yet we have never been larger and less active as a nation, and indeed as a global population, than we are now.”

On what then has caused the obesity epidemic, Professor Prins said it was a million dollar question, being researched in universities and organisations the world over.

“We know that in general, activity levels have gone down over the last few decades across all generations and there are many causes of that including better mechanisation most commonly in the form of cars; and safety such as with children no longer walk to school.”

“On the food intake side, we’ve had a worldwide situation where foods that are not so good for you are more readily available, have a longer shelf life and are cheaper than fresh foods.

“It ends up being that eating well is often the more expensive option.”

Professor Prins also suggested longer working hours were also contributing to expanding waistlines and decreasing activity levels.

On the positive side, however the trend of decreased structured physical education classes and sports programs in schools is now being reversed, with the education system placing greater value on sports, and particularly, participation.

“The great news is that in children and young Australians, obesity rates have actually plateaued and for optimistic researchers, actually appear to be going down,” said Professor Prins.

“The same is being seen in the US, where obesity rates have actually fallen in the last ten years.

“The great indication is that we can actually turn this around.”

Professor Prins said the key to this is early education.

“The time to educate around food and exercise is absolutely in youth,” he said.

“There are great programs now in the US where kids are learning the right information in schools and are then going home and educating the older members of their family.

“These children are learning to regulate their eating and exercise which was the intended benefit, however the flow on effect has been increased knowledge in the families of these students.”

Professor Prins also noted that it was key to source information on diet and exercise from reputable sources, particularly given the wealth and variety of information accessible on the internet

“There are thousands of different websites on health and each is going to present information in different ways,” he said.

“For example The Cancer Council and The Heart Foundation have competing ideas on healthy eating when compared to Diabetes Australia.

“When we looked at it closely, the differences were really only very minor and what was found was that 80% of the advice from one organisation was consistent with other organisations, so we’re now being encouraged to focus on that 80% that is the same across the board and throughout the world.”

Ultimately, Professor Prins concluded the most effective way to lose weight was simply to lessen calorie intake.

“The single best way to lose weight is changing food intake,” he said.

“It’s a very simple equation: to lose half a kilo per week, you need to eat 500 calories less each day than you actually require; and obviously, to lose a kilo per week, you need to eat 1000 calories less.”

Professor Prins also suggested relying on exercise alone to lose weight was ineffective.

“If you do a combination of food and exercise, your diet becomes much more effective, but exercise should not be used to lose weight, it should be used to maintain health and fitness,” he said.

“There is a very common misconception that exercise burns a lot more calories than it does. Human beings are very, very efficient exercisers and calorie use during exercise is extremely low.

“The most important thing to remember about food intake is calories. A calorie is a calorie, it doesn’t matter where it comes from, so if you think about nothing else: think about calories.”

UQ has launched its 2016 Global Leadership Series, with the first lecture, ‘What has science done for you lately?’ taking place on March 10th.