FIA Video: Obesity – Causes, Evolution and Solutions

Obesity is a complex problem, and a variety of tailored intervention strategies are needed to address it in its different forms, said Professor Michael J. Gibney, Emeritus Professor of Food and Health at the University College Dublin (UCD) and inaugural director of the UCD Institute of Food and Health. He is also author of a book on obesity, entitled, “Ever Seen A Fat Fox?: Human Obesity Explored”.

Professor Gibney was in Singapore recently, as a guest speaker at the fifth FIA Lunch Series session on 29 September, where he shared his thoughts on the public health and consumer perceptions of, as well as the solutions to, the obesity epidemic.

During his presentation, Professor Gibney touched on the measurement of obesity and the development and evolution of the epidemic throughout human history. He also shared his views on the role industry can play in tackling obesity, as well as policy solutions to improve public health nutrition.

In this video, Professor Gibney elaborates on these topics, and shares his thoughts on Singapore’s “war against diabetes”.

FIA: Is obesity a new phenomenon?

PMG: I read some papers looking at how the Greek philosophers had looked at food, and noted that many of them referred to obesity occurring in particular tribes. And then I started looking at some Roman literature and I found, again, that the Romans have quite an extensive literature on food in general, but also on obesity – saying that they were too fat to fight, and so forth. As I probed into it, I found that right throughout history, wherever man has been wealthy, people have been fat. And it was a disease of the affluent at the time.

And then you began to look at what are called cohort studies; you did begin to find the same thing. You begin to find a wave-like development. Basically speaking, it did not remain flat and suddenly happen in the 1980s, as has been stated in some popular books. Now, it's fair to say that there has been an explosion in obesity recently. So every corner of the globe has it, areas that maybe didn't have it before.

FIA: Is it true that processed and ultra-processed foods have made us fatter?

PMG: I look at processed food and I think of bread being a processed food, butter, yoghurt, cheese, all of the hams, and sausages that were part of European cities. And in fact, it's really difficult to see a food that was invented in the last 50 years that was unique to this particular time. Most of them were developed a long time ago – including soft drinks, including biscuits, including cakes. What really happened was mass production. We got the provision of food everywhere, and we also got more and more cheap food, more and more money to buy the food, and less and less time to work for food. So I would say that it was the socio-cultural changes that have contributed more to obesity, than any invention of processed or ultra-processed foods.

FIA: How can the food industry contribute to the fight against obesity?

PMG: I think that the big industries have absolutely no choice but to invest in reformulation – to the point where they may have to drop lines that can't be reformulated anymore and don't meet nutritional standards. So they have to be willing to lose money on those. The smaller industries have to be brought to the table to do it, and the only people who can do that are governments.

FIA: How can we strike a proper balance between top-down and bottom-up regulatory approaches?

PMG: The problem with top-down is that it's cheap and easy. The bottom-up is much more complicated, much more long-term, and much more expensive. And the bottom-up approach really requires some sort of independent agency to be established with a view to take this programme on for the long term. 

The top-down: The banning of the introduction of obligatory labelling, the banning of advertising of food at certain times, the restriction of fast food outlets – these are all easy to do, easy to implement, cost very little, and are enormously popular. But in my view, they're not going to solve the problem. Ultimately, we have to help people lose weight.

FIA: What are your views on Singapore’s “war on diabetes”?

PMG: One interesting possibility is that in the bottom-up approach, you wouldn't necessarily target obesity. You would target diabetes and hypertension. And so your targets would no longer be, "we want to get people skinny". Our target would be, "we want to get rid of the problems". 

The issue of diabetes and obesity varies globally. In some parts of the world, diabetes arises at later stages of obesity. Then in some areas, it arises at lower stages of obesity. In Asia, it arises at lower stages of obesity. So it would make sense to me, in Asia, to run programmes that not only target obesity, but specifically target type 2 diabetes, because that is what hurts people when they get fat. That is what costs the health service money. And since it's a treatable condition, treatable by both physical activity and reduction of body weight, I would be targeting - definitely if you live in this part of the world - I would be targeting diabetes.

FIA issues regular e-bulletins with analysis on relevant food and beverage industry issues across the region. To subscribe to this service, please click here