Welcome to the town that will make you lose weight

Towns and cities need to be radically redesigned to help to tackle the obesity epidemic, scientists were told —yesterday. Professor Philip James, chairman of the International Obesity Task Force, a London-based think-tank, called for a revolution in urban planning to encourage people to use cars less and public transport more.

He told a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston that it was naive to expect people to lose weight by making better choices about diet and exercise when their surroundings encouraged inactivity.
Urban designers had created an “obesogenic environment” by planning public spaces around the car. Transport systems that made it easier to drive than to walk, cycle or take public transport were the worst contributors to obesity.
 
He also blamed the rise of desk-bound office work and sedentary leisure activities such as watching television, surfing the internet and playing computer games. Lifts and escalators, and even labour-saving devices such as electric toothbrushes and can-openers added to the problem.
“Blaming individuals for their personal vulnerability to weight gain is no longer acceptable in a world where the majority is already overweight and obesity is rising everywhere,” said Professor James, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “It is naive of ill-informed politicians and food industry executives to place the onus on individuals making ‘healthier choices’ whilst the environment in which we live is the overwhelming factor amplifying the epidemic.
 
“It is even more naive to tell people that they just need to make a little change in their eating habits or their daily activity and suddenly the obesity problem will be remarkably easily solved.” Rather than pouring billions into creating more car-filled town centres and motorway networks, it was now necessary to curtail car use.
“The alternative of simply advocating more leisure activity is increasingly seen not to work without sustained additional changes to town planning and transport,” he said. The think-tank belongs to the International Association for the Study of Obesity, an umbrella body for 52 national obesity organisations Research by Rena Wing, of Brown University in Rhode Island, found that it was unrealistic for most people who lost weight to keep it off by making small lifestyle changes such as using stairs. While small efforts such as this could stop people who were already slim from from getting fat, those who had lost weight needed to add 90 minutes of walking to their daily routines to avoid putting it back on again.
 
“We live in an obesogenic environment that relies heavily on fast food, automobiles and remote controls – all of which can be labelled as ‘toxic’ to maintaining a healthy body weight,” Dr Wing said.In a study, Dr Wing and James Hill, of the University of Colorado Denver, who run the the US National Weight Control Registry, examined data on more than 5,000 successful dieters who had lost an average of 5 stone and kept it off for six years.
They found that successful weight-watchers ate a low-calorie diet, including breakfast, watched little television and incorporated much more exercise than is usual into their daily routines. “They do a tremendous amount of physical activity, burning off about 2,800 calories a week,” she said. “If you just do walking, to burn off that many calories, you would need to walk 28 miles a week, the equivalent of a marathon. That’s about four miles each day in the week. We estimate that will take them 90 minutes.
“If you want to lose weight and keep it off, you need to really change your lifestyle, particularly if you’re overweight or have a family history of obesity. The obesity epidemic won’t go away simply because people switch to skimmed milk.”
 
Professor James highlighted Oslo in Norway as an example of a “slim city”, where the built environment is structured to discourage car use and encourage walking and cycling. Urban planning in the Netherlands and Denmark has also incorporated more physical activity in daily lives, lowering obesity rates.
Professor James attacked some food manufacturers and retailers for resisting “traffic light” labelling schemes. He said: “The approach seems to be the one many parts of the food industry fear most – and perhaps for good reason because it warns consumers when what they are getting is mostly a junk-food combination of fattening ingredients of little nutritional value.”
 
He said that for half a century, food technology had refined the production of precise combinations of flavours – largely artificial – that could hook us on particular types of foods. “Along with that precision targeting of taste, finely honed techniques of marketing have been used to mould consumer preferences in ways which were unthinkable for earlier generations. In particular the way in which children have been targeted in recent decades has shown that the ruthless drive to increase sales and consumption figures has overridden common sense and the need for social responsibility.”
 
Fat file
— 60 per cent of all journeys made by Dutch people aged over 60 are by bike. — 10.4 per cent of Dutch men and 10.1 per cent of women aged 20-60 are obese. In England, 24.9 per cent of males and 25.2 per cent of women over 16 are obese — 70 per cent of Tongan women aged 15-85 are obese. Tonga and nearby Nauru have the world’s fattest populations — More than a million prescriptions for antiobesity drugs are given out each year -30 per cent of British children are overweight.
 
Article From The Times: February 18, 2008 by Mark Henderson, Science Editor
Sources: IOTF, NHS information centre, Times database