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Obesity Epidemic Sweeps Britain; Eating, Exercise Habits Blamed

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Knight Ridder Newspapers


LONDON - They aren't joking about flabby American tourists around here these days.

Europe's getting fat, too. And Britain, one of the fastest adopters of American trends, is among those leading the way.

"With quite astonishing rapidity, an epidemic of obesity has swept over England," said an exhaustive, multivolume parliamentary report on the subject released a few weeks ago that sparked a frenzy of media attention. The report said the proportion of obese people in Britain had grown from about 7 percent to about 24 percent in the last 25 years.

Thanks to sedentary lifestyles and American-inspired eating habits, two-thirds of the British population is now overweight or obese, the report said. That's about the same level as in the United States, though the United States still has far more really heavy people.

Among European adults, only the Greeks are fatter, but most countries are not far behind, with a third to half of the adults counted as overweight, various studies show. And it's no laughing matter: Obesity will soon pass smoking as the leading cause of death in Britain, the report said. If the current trend continues, diabetes and heart disease will soar.

Even more alarming for Europeans is the rise of childhood obesity. In Italy, for example, where adults are still among Europe's thinnest but children love McDonald's, more than a third of 10-year-olds are overweight, according to a World Health Organization survey.

"Should the gloomier scenarios relating to obesity turn out to be true, the sight of amputees will become much more familiar in the streets of Britain," the British report said. "There will be many more blind people. There will be huge demand for kidney dialysis."

The report by the House of Commons Select Committee on Health, which recommended that the food industry voluntarily restrict the marketing of junk food to children, was greeted as a bombshell by the news media here, which devoted acres of newsprint and hours of broadcasting to it.

There was even a bit of controversy when it turned out that a 3-year-old girl, cited in the report as having died of obesity complications, in fact suffered from a rare genetic defect that made her constantly ravenous. Some commentators slammed the committee for not making that clear, but the overall factual conclusions were not challenged.

By week's end, Prime Minister Tony Blair's health minister, John Reid, was reviving a plan to place a "fat tax" on candy and junk food, and others were warning that the food industry needed to reconsider its advertising strategies. Experts were heartened.

"We've been warning about obesity for years. Finally, people are waking up and listening," said Neville Rigby, policy chief for the London-based International Obesity Task Force. "It's a slow-burn, creeping epidemic that suddenly people have become alert to."

The epidemic is even broader than Europe and the developed world. Obesity has become a global phenomenon, with one of every four people on the planet overweight, Rigby's group says. More people are now overweight than hungry in the world, it adds.

What are the causes? By now, anyone who watches daytime talk shows or reads general-interest magazines should know them by heart: People are surrounded by high-fat, high-calorie temptations, even as modern conveniences mean they engage in less physical activity than at any other time in human history.

The British report offered some insightful examples. Citing an earlier study, it noted that the extra physical exertion required for daily living 50 years ago, compared with now, amounted to the equivalent of running a marathon a week.

While Britons bicycled 23 billion kilometers - or about 14 billion miles - a year in 1952, for example, that has slumped to 4 billion kilometers - or about 2.5 billion miles - today. Meanwhile, the number of cars in Britain has jumped from 16 million in 1975 to 27 million today.

As with children in the United States, physical activity among British children has plummeted. As the value of land in Britain has soared, cash-strapped schools have sold off hundreds of playing fields to developers.

Meanwhile, the British have adopted bad American eating habits. The giant cheeseburgers, the greasy fried chicken, the sugary coffee drinks, the super premium ice cream - they're all here.

The larger societal trends may be impossible to reverse, but the report offered a series of recommendations to better educate consumers about diet and exercise. One of the more interesting was a simple "traffic light" food-labeling system - red stickers for foods high in fat and calories, yellow for those with moderate levels of both, and green for the lowest-fat, least-caloric foods.

The committee also urged the government to give the food industry three years to clean up its marketing act, and then impose regulations if necessary. Sweden, for example, bans ads directed at children younger than 12.

Not everyone in the country of the stiff upper lip is embracing that idea.

"Ultimately, there is a limit to what governments can achieve," said an editorial in London's Independent. "Ensure there is honest food labeling, by all means, but curbing the advertising of unhealthy foods or placing warnings on packets would have little effect, merely contributing to the impressions of a nanny state. At heart, this is a problem for individuals to address, and the cure, for most people, is simple: Eat sensibly and take some exercise."


(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.


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