Obesity is now an epidemic in many developed countries with one in five adults seriously overweight – 17% of men and 21% of woman are obese. There is also a large rise in the number of overweight and obese youngsters. Obesity in children aged between two and four almost doubled from five to nine per cent from 1989 to 1998. It trebled from five to 16 per cent among children aged six to 15 between 1990-2001. Obesity in women trebled between 1980 and 2002 from eight to 23 per cent. Obesity in men is even worse, with the figure rising fourfold from six to 22 per cent. Obesity causes at thousands of deaths each year, from medical conditions such as heart disease, strokes and diabetes.

Obesity is measured by calculating your Body Mass Index (BMI). This is your weight in kilo-grams divided by the square of your height in metres. A BMI above 25 is categorised as overweight, and above 30 is obese.

A recent study by the Netherlands Morbidity Research Group, which studied the health and lifestyles of 3,500 men and women over more than half a century has concluded that being obese or overweight in adulthood decreases life expectancy as much as smoking.

Dr Anna Peeters, of the Netherlands Morbidity Research Group, who led the study, said: ‘We concluded that obesity in adulthood is associated with a decrease in life expectancy of about seven years, both in men and women.The condition leaves people at risk of heart disease, diabetes, high bloodpressure and osteoarthritis. Recent studies have shown obesity is leading to more than 30,000 premature deaths annually in Britain from illnesses caused or worsened by being overweight.

Studies have shown that the ten per cent of women who are heaviest are 20 per cent more likely to suffer breast cancer than the ten per cent at the other end of the weight scale.

Instead of extreme diets, surgical procedures or drugs, doctors recommend sustainable lifestyle changes such as a varied and sensible diet including fresh vegetables and fruit with moderate amounts of protein and exercise that doesn’t necesarily mean going to a gym, such as cycling or dancing. See Elixirs and Diet .

New discoveries

Chemical that could burn away obesity

A compound called KB-141, which speeds up metabolism and also reduce cholesterol has been developed by the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb. It works by stimulating the thyroid hormone that regulates metabolism and cholesterol. Previous treatments have not been able to discriminate between different thyroid functions, and have affected both metabolic and heart rates. While most research into obesity has focused on appetite suppression.

Stomach pacemaker

An Italian doctor has invented a ‘stomach pacemaker’, the size of tiny matchbox, which when implanted within the stomach, slows down the movement of food through the intestine, making a person feel fuller and preventing hunger pangs.

The Gastric Stimulator (TIGS), is similar in design to a pacemaker but slows down the movement of food through the intestine. It sends out pulses of electricity that trigger activity by natural neurons in the stomach whose job is to tell the brain when there is no more room for food. In other words, it fools the brain into
thinking the stomach is full.Results from early tests on ten patients show they were able to lose 90 per cent of their excess weight over two years. The device would stay in the body permanently.

Other treatments for obesity include drugs and surgery such as stomach stapling the most popular forms of surgery, shrinks the size of the stomach but this can lead to complications. Another option, a gastric bypass, restricts both food intake and the take-up of sugar and fats.

Trials on the stomach pacemaker are being carried out by an American implant company, Transneuronix, on 150 people in Europe and the U.S. If the results are positive the pacemaker could be inplanted in Britain patients.

The device delays the emptying of the stomach. The signals are thought to restrict movement by shrinking the entrance and exit. At the heart of the technology is a stimulation lead implanted in the gastric area using keyhole surgery and connected to a battery-powered electrical unit implanted under the skin around the abdomen. A third piece of equipment is a computer that works like a remote control to check how the technology is working, and which is also used to change the type of electrical signals being sent out. Once it has been put in place, the device can be left on indefinitely or switched on when the patient feels an urge to eat excessively.

Herbal hunger cure

Research shows that those taking Zotrim, the brand name for a product that contains a combination of three South American herbs – shed around five pounds in a month.

Nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton, who conducted the study, says the preparation could provide extra motivation for slimmers plagued by hunger pangs. ‘It promotes a physical feeling of fullness caused by a delay in the emptying of contents from the stomach,’ she said.

Taking the herbal tablets delays the rate at which the stomach empties by an average of 20 minutes. The delay is not dangerous – it merely extends the normal length of time taken to digest food. But it makes it difficult for people to eat too much as they feel uncomfortably full more quickly.