Obesity: The Challenge to the Global Food Industry

Obesity is inextricably linked to an excess of caloric intake and inadequate levels of physical activity. The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks the latter as the fifth largest contributor to global disease, while physical activity is ranked even higher – at fourth position. Excess weight and inadequate physical inactivity are two sides of one coin.

At the very outset, there are three questions regarding the normal measure of obesity (BMI in kg/m2) which does not seem unreasonable to ask, and which will be covered in the lecture:

  • Is BMI a reliable measure of body fat?
  • Are increasing BMI levels equally indicative of health risk across all ages?
  • Can we dismiss the emerging case that that the risk-range of BMI should be changed?

A second area that will be looked at and challenged is the case that obesity is a relatively new human phenomenon, and that the rise in obesity is directly associated with the emergence of the modern food chain. There is very strong evidence to the contrary, and there is no credible scientific evidence behind the "ultra-processed" food concept. No nutrition-related medical conditions have ever been linked to the use of processing in food production and these conditions were entirely related to actual nutrient intake and not to the level of processing. The rationale behind the "ultra-processed" concept appears to be more political than scientific in nature, and we might caution regulators and policymakers to review the evidence before being influenced by activist movements in spite of their illogical and unscientific bases.

A third area to be looked at is the role of physical activity and of sedentary lifestyles in the emergence of obesity. A strong case can be made – that it is better to be fit and fat than sedentary and lean. Physical activity plays a far stronger role in the management of the complications of obesity (high blood pressure or high fasting blood glucose).

A fourth area is the regulation of food intake and the evidence that this probably has a stronger cultural dimension than it has a biological dimension. Why, in the same environment and with similar backgrounds, do some people eat more frequently and with greater portion sizes than others?

A fifth area will briefly cover the genetic determinants of adult obesity with a staggering inheritance factor of 0.75, much stronger than the genetic basis of issues such as depression, alcoholism and bone disease. The main contributing data in this area comes not from studies of individual or clusters of genes, but of the study of identical and non-identical twins.

Finally, we turn to actions to tackle obesity; the main argument here is that the emphasis, to date, has been on the top-down regulatory domain (tax, ban, restrict, label, etc.), with little emphasis on building community structures to enact a long-term ground-up approach to both weight management and weight loss. The issue of product reformulation will be considered.

Professor Michael J. Gibney
is Professor of Food & Health in University College Dublin's School of Agriculture and Food Science, Director of the UCD Institute of Food and Health and Chairman of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. He is former president of The Nutrition Society, has served on several EU and United Nations (UN) committees on nutrition and health, and has published over 250 peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Professor Gibney will deliver a talk entitled “Obesity: Is the global food industry really to blame?” for the next FIA Lunch Series seminar, taking place at the FIA office on 29 September 2016. A few spaces are still available on a first-come, first-served basis. To register, please write to joaquim.tan@foodindustry.asia. To find out more about Professor Gibney’s work, please contact him at mike.gibney@ucd.ie.

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