Step up obesity campaign, experts urge

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Obesity, Fast food, Nutrition

The obesity epidemic has reached a crisis point, experts warn at
this week's European congress, and governments and the food
industry must gear up efforts to deal with it and prevent further
impact quality of life and life expectancy.

The 15th​ European Congress on Obesity is taking place in Budapest this week, where the latest in obesity research is being presented to 2,500 attending specialists. The core message to governments is that those whose health ministers have already signed the European Charter to halt the rise in obesity by 2015 must gear up to cope with the scope of the epidemic. And according to Danish researchers presenting study findings today, food quality and portion sizes for fast food need to be improved dramatically across the board. At the food manufacturing and formulation level (especially for packaged foods) many players in the European food industry have taken earnest steps to address their part in obesity by reformulating products to make them healthier. But is frequently stressed that this should go hand in hand with other measures, such as education, promoting exercise, and the role of physicians, in order to achieve optimal impact on waste sizes. Today attendees will be presented with research conducted at Copenhagen University into foods sold at fast food chains across 35 countries. The researchers, led by Professor Steen Stender, found major variations in products offered by the same chains. In particular, they found that products in some countries had 17 times the level of trans fatty acids permitted in Denmark. Denmark introduced a ban on trans fats in 2004, and any business directors found to deliberately breach the law are liable to pay hefty fines and face up to two years in jail. Seventy-four samples of French fries and fried chicken bough in McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in 2005 and 2006 were analysed. The findings were so wide ranging that the team concluded that the idea of a typical fast food meal the world over was a "myth".​ Eastern Europe was found to be particularly worrying, with levels of trans fats in Kentucky Fried Chicken products in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic found to be 29 to 24 per cent of the total fat content. In McDonalds the highest trans fat levels were found in Oman (20 per cent). Samples from the UK (London, Aberdeen and Glasgow) were 15 to 16 per cent. The researchers said that while total fat content could be accounted for by local tastes, the same could not be said for trans fats, which have "powerful biological effect and may contribute to increased weight gain, abdominal obesity, type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease".​ Although they said that the extend of fast food's contribution to obesity and other morbidities may be debatable, it generally has a higher-energy density. This, combined with large portion sizes, induced over-consumption of calories. Also aired today are the results of the latest survey into obesity rates across 28 European countries. Examples of morbid obesity percentages include 3.6 per cent of adults in Spain with a BMI (body mass index) over 40. The comparative rate for the UK is 1.95 per cent, 1.3 per cent for Hungary, and 0.35 per cent for the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia. Eastern Europe is also said to be of grave concern, especially since rates of childhood obesity are rising. Professor Vojtech Hainer, president of the European Association for the Study of Obesity said that a new approach is now needed, and there should be an end to discrimination when dealing with obese people. "Obesity should be treated within the health care system as any other complex disease with empathy and without prejudice,"​ he said.

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