Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Meat sector escapes fickle finger of blame on obesity? Fat chance

Obesity has again hit the headlines recently with calls to tackle the issue, not least among the nation’s children. Earlier this month at the Conservative Party Conference, David Cameron called for drastic action to be taken on obesity to prevent soaring health costs and falling life expectancy. Talk of the sensitively-dubbed ‘fat tax’ emerged, following Denmark’s example where a surcharge has been imposed on foods with more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat.

Reportedly, by 2050 more than half of the population is predicted to be obese. The Department of Health’s new obesity strategy has talked about creating the right environment for individuals to make healthier choices. Figures set out in the strategy suggest that the average adult consumes 10 per cent more calories than they should.  Food and drink manufacturers have been called on to cut five billion calories from the nation’s daily diet as part of plans to reduce obesity levels in England.

Certainly a serious issue worthy of debate at the highest level so it is unfortunate that certain regular industry detractors seized on it to extol the virtues of cutting down on meat intake as one way of managing weight. It’s disappointing to see yet again that meat consumption appears to have been singled out in some quarters as the pantomime villain. ‘Oh no it isn’t!’, ‘Oh yes it is!’ I’m afraid. What are the facts though?

Yes, obesity in England has more than doubled in last 25 years and by 2050 is predicted to affect 60 per cent of adult men, 50 per cent of adult women and 25 per cent of children, but the exact causes are not clearly understood. It’s now accepted that there are a combination of nutritional and non-nutritional factors that control food intake – eat better and exercise regularly, in short – and red meat can play an import role in better diets. Red meat is a major source of protein, providing about 27-35 g/100g of cooked beef or lamb. Protein may lengthen the time it takes for people to want to eat again, compared with carbohydrate and fat. Increasing protein intake from 15 per cent to 30 per cent of energy has been shown to decrease calorie intake.

Evidence also suggests that in dietary practice, it may now be beneficial to replace refined carbohydrates with protein sources that are low in saturated fat, such as lean red meat. It has suggested that incorporating additional lean red meat into a calorie-reduced moderate fat may improve the feeling of fullness that persists after eating. This would suppress further energy intake until hunger returns. Some cuts of lean red meat and red meat dishes have a low energy density, which have been found to contribute to greater weight loss without creating a sensation of food deprivation.

Obesity is a very real health problem for many people but attributing blame to one specific food group is, at best, misguided. Contrary to popular belief, lean red meat can play a positive role in weight loss and weight maintenance programmes. But of course the debate is not black and white and is unlikely to be over even after the fat lady has sung.

The Government’s full obesity strategy can be viewed by clicking here.

The Meat Advisory Panel’s factsheet on red meat and weight management can be viewed by clicking here.