It was a packed auditorium at the recent public evening lecture presented by Graham MacGregor on the topic of, Unhealthy Food: By Far the Biggest Cause of Death in the UK.
Prof MacGregor has a wealth of experience; he is currently Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Queen Mary, University of London, and Honorary Consultant Physician at Barts and The London Hospital.
The lecture began by an explanation stating that unhealthy foods are processed foods which are filled with salt, saturated fat, and sugar.
He then proposed the question, why are we getting so fat? One poignant fact was that a Big Mac burger, large chips, and coca cola would take running a half marathon to burn off. Not only does this not happen, in the majority of people at least, but foods like this also do not manage to fill us up and therefore more food is eaten.
The food industry have given us a taste for salty and sugary foods which has become addictive. We now crave these foods and are not satisfied with lower levels. In order to successfully change the way we eat the food industry needs to reduce the salt/fat/sugar content of foods slowly so that the general public does not notice.
Sugar, for example, is the only cause of dental decay, it is a major source of hidden calories, and leads to obesity and diabetes, however, sugar in drinks can be reduced without the content decreasing. Unfortunately this could be a problem with food – if 50% of sugar is reduced from a biscuit then the biscuit will become much smaller.
Nonetheless, in the past 20 years there have been major changes in general awareness of salt and a reduction in our diets. For example, bread contains huge amounts of salt. This was reduced by 25% without the general public noticing.
In 1996 Prof MacGregor set up an action group on salt to get the food industry to add less salt to foods and thereby reduce our intake. This was very successful and resulted in the Food Standards Agency taking on the task of salt reduction. The UK is now leading the world in salt reduction.
Unfortunately if no action is taken to further reduce salt, and also to reduce sugar and fat, then deaths will continue to rise. Atheroma causes many cardiovascular diseases and is therefore the biggest cause of death in the UK. This is caused by high blood pressure and high cholesterol which occurs due to diets. Additionally type 2 diabetes is the main cause of amputation, kidney dialysis and blindness.
Who is responsible for our unhealthy diets? Firstly, the public, we do not have to eat these foods, secondly, the government, for not making necessary changes, but the biggest culprit, according to Prof MacGregor, is the food industry. They must reduce the salt, fat, and sugar content of foods. Currently they are poisoning the public, but this does not have to be the case. Reductions can be made and healthier, just as profitable, foods can be made.
What else can be done? Taxing high salt/sugar/fat foods could work. If a bottle of coca cola was taxed as much as cigarettes it would cost between £7-8. Other options include, subsidising healthy foods, banning unhealthy food advertising, and restricting the availability of unhealthy foods.
Thankfully the food industry is aware of the problem and most large companies are trying to do something about it. However this is a difficult and ongoing issue.