Full4Health: A food solution to obesity?
In Western Europe there has been a huge increase in the amount and variety of cheap food available to the average consumer. This sounds like good news and indeed was a situation dreamed of after years of rationing during and after World War II. However, as is so often the case, there have been some unintended consequences of this food boom. The problem lies with the increase in the variety of foods containing high levels of fat and sugar, which we find palatable and enjoyable to eat, and which are also often the cheapest to buy. Combine this with our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and we have the perfect recipe for the increase in overweight and obesity that we see across most countries in Europe.
A different but related problem is the increasingly ageing population. Elderly people often suffer from a loss of appetite (relative anorexia), which can lead to gradual weight loss, loss of mobility and a dramatic decrease in quality of life. Inappetence is also a clinical issue in patients recovering from major traumas and chemotherapy.
The increase in overweight and obesity, and the problem of age-related and clinical anorexia are opposite ends of the same spectrum, namely, how our physiological systems interact with the food we eat and how our appetite is controlled. This is a highly complex, multi-faceted system, which involves as a first step the release of hormones from the gut in response to the consumption of food. These signals, alongside a range of other environmental and social information, are processed in the brain leading to a stimulation or reduction in appetite, and to feelings of hunger or satiation (feeling full).
Although people are often able to lose weight, they usually find it difficult to keep the weight off in the long term. This is partly because reducing food consumption is working against many of these gut-brain interactions, which have evolved to counter life-threatening weight loss and which stimulate us to eat when we see palatable food. It is also worth noting that most of the drugs that have made it into the clinic for weight loss have subsequently been withdrawn because of side-effects. So we have a significant problem of over-consumption of calories leading to overweight and obesity, without any effective long-term treatment to alleviate the condition.
Clearly, a new approach to weight control is required if we are to make any progress in the battle against obesity and improve the quality of life across a wide age range.
Full4Health outcomes and impact
The Full4Health project is undertaking an in-depth, multi-disciplinary approach to significantly improve our understanding of the pathways and mechanisms that are involved in controlling our feelings of hunger and satiety. These studies of physiological processes, and including the psychology of food choice, are complemented by studies looking at the effects of food structure and different dietary components. By combining these different approaches it is hoped to identify new food ‘leads’ for appetite control, in the same way as protein has been proven to be the most satiating macronutrient, and has recently been incorporated into several novel food products across Europe.
So in the longer term the project is aiming to provide new insights that will enable the reformulation of food and food products to provide more effective tools for appetite control. This could provide added support to a consumer-based approach to weight management, enabling individuals to take control of their health rather than relying on clinicians.
The project is clearly relevant to a range of EU health-related policies, many of which are outlined in the publication ‘Healthier Together in the European Union’ from the Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General (ISBN 92-79-04503-2) www.bookshop.europa.eu and http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/health_consumer/index_en.htm.
In March 2005 the EU set-up the Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, bringing together consumer organisations, health NGOs and EU-level industry representatives to tackle the obesity problem through voluntary actions. In May 2012, Health and Consumer policy Commissioner John Dalli issued a press release emphasising the importance of the consumer ‘at the heart of the single market’. Clearly outcomes from projects such as ‘Full4Health’ should facilitate voluntary and consumer-based actions towards preventing further increases in obesity.