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  • Each year unhealthy diets are linked to 11m deaths worldwide a global study concludes
  • Red and processed meat not only cause disease and premature death from chronic non-communicable diseases (NCD) but also put the planet at unnecessary risk
  • Evidence suggests that the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of NCDs and is better for the Planet

Eat like Greeks, live healthier lives and save our planet

 
Findings of an international research project about the relationship between diet and chronic diseases are reported in a paper entitled, “Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries 1990-2017. A systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017”, which is published in the April 2019 edition of The Lancet. The paper suggests that millions of people throughout the world consume an unhealthy diet comprised of  too much processed meat, sodium and sugar and too little plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains and nuts. This results in a significant increase in the prevalence of chronic non-communicable diseases (NCD) such as coronary heart disease, cancer and diabetes and  each year causes some 11m avoidable deaths worldwide - 22% of all adult deaths: 10m from cardiovascular disease, 913,000 from cancer and some 339,000 from type-2 diabetes. According to the paper’s authors, “A suboptimal diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risks globally, including tobacco smoking, highlighting the urgent need for improving human diet across nations”.
 
In this Commentary
 
This Commentary reviews evidence of recent large-scale epidemiology studies, which suggest that “you are what you eat”.  Not only do unhealthy diets cause ill health and premature death for millions, they also harm the environment and push the Earth beyond its planetary boundaries. All the studies we describe conclude that we know the answer to this vast and escalating health problem: eat like Greeks or indeed the Japanese. Notwithstanding, changing the way populations collectively eat is a massive challenge facing governments, healthcare systems and individuals.
 
The Global Burden of Disease project
 
The Lancet paper’s findings described above are based on the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) enterprise, which is one of the world’s largest scientific collaborative research projects, which was started in the early 1990s by the World Bank to measure the impact of disability and death from hundreds of diseases worldwide. Over the past two decades its work has grown, and the endeavour has become institutionalized at the World Health Organization (WHO). Today, the GBD project is an international consortium of more than 3,600 researchers, its findings are updated annually and they influence health policy throughout the world.
 
Red meat and bowel cancer
 
Findings of a more narrowly focussed but nonetheless significant study, published in the April 2019 edition of the International Journal of Epidemiology warn that red-processed meat consumption is linked with bowel cancer.  According to Tim Key, the study’s co-author, Professor of Epidemiology and Deputy Director at Oxford University's Cancer Epidemiology Unit, “Results strongly suggest that people who eat red and processed meat four or five times a week have a higher risk of developing bowel cancer than those who eat red and processed meat less than twice a week . . . . There’s substantial evidence that red and processed meat are linked to bowel cancer and the World Health Organization classifies processed meat as ‘carcinogenic’ and red meat as ‘probably carcinogenic’”. Notwithstanding, Key warns that, “Diet studies are problematic because those who take part often either forget what they have eaten or fail to tell the truth”. Key also suggests that, “Most previous research [on diet and cancer] looked at people in the 1990s or earlier and diets have changed significantly since then”.
 
Chronic non-communicable diseases
 
Chronic non-communicable diseases (NCD) are largely caused by humans and are therefore preventable. Notwithstanding, they account for more than 70% of all deaths globally and emergent NCDs pose significant systemic challenges for both nation states and individuals. Forty percent of all adults in the world are overweight and 1.4bn suffer from hypertension: both critical risk factors of NCDs. In 2016, 18m people died from cardiovascular disease (CVD), representing 31% of all global deaths. In the US an estimated 92m adults are living with CVD. By 2030, 44% of the US adult population is projected to have some form of CVD. There are around 7m people living with heart and circulatory disease in the UK. Worldwide some 0.5bn people have diabetes and in 2018 there were 17m new cases of cancer worldwide. Although there are some encouraging signs associated with the slowing of the prevalence rates of NCDs globally, prevalence of NCDs is expected to rise because of population growth and aging, misaligned healthcare policies and institutional inertia.
 
The paradox of food insecurity and obesity
 
Paradoxically, food scarcity and obesity are both forms of malnutrition and represent a vast and escalating burden on the worlds limited and diminishing resources. This is because food insecurity can contribute to people being overweight and obese. Nutritious fresh foods often tend to be expensive, so when household resources for food become scarce, people choose less expensive foods that are often high in calories and low in nutrients. As a result, adult obesity rates continue to rise each year, from 11.7% in 2012 to 13.2% in 2016. In 2017 the World Health Organization estimated that more than one in eight adults, or more than 672m people in the world, were obese and 2bn were classified as overweight. A report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank based in Washington DC, US, suggests that worldwide each year, "Malnutrition costs US$3.5trn, with overweight- and obesity-related NCDs, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, adding US$2trn”.
 
The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health
 
Not only do unhealthy diets result in NCDs and premature death, but they also harm the environment. The dual aspects of unhealthy diets causing disease and harming the planet are described in research conducted by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Healthand reported in the January 2019 edition of  The Lancet.
EAT is an independent non-profit organisation based in Oslo, Norway, dedicated to food-system reform, which collaborated with The Lancet. The report took 3-years to complete and brought together 37 world-renowned scientists from 16 countries with expertise in health, nutrition, environmental sustainability, food systems, economics and political governance; and tasked them with reaching a consensus that defines a sustainable “healthy planetary diet”, which the authors suggest approximates a Mediterranean diet, see below.

The EAT-Lancet research, financed by the Wellcome Trust,analysed the diets of people in 195 countries using survey data, as well as sales data and household expenditure data to estimate the impact of unhealthy diets on the risk of death and morbidity from NCDs. The Commission’s authors provide a comprehensive picture of the consumption of 15 dietary factors across nations and quantify the potential impact of suboptimal intake of each dietary component on NCD mortality and morbidity among 195 countries. Also, researchers calculate mortality related to other risk factors,such as smoking and drug use, at the global level.

 

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Criticism of the EAT-Lancet Commission
 
The EAT-Lancet Commission’s report has its critics. One is the UK’s National Farmers’ Union whose Vice President Stuart Roberts said, “Scientific communities agree that red meat plays a vital role in a healthy, balanced diet as a rich source of essential nutrients, minerals, amino acids and protein. It is overly simplistic to target one food group for a significant reduction in consumption, and it ignores its medically accepted role as a key part of a healthy, balanced diet   . . . It is clear that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and British farmers are continuing to take action. A combination of policies and practises will be needed to enable farmers to meet their ambitions, but we must not forget the impact of a changing climate on food production”.
 
Benefits of red meat
 
Roberts is right to point out that red meat has health benefits. Heme iron, which is found in red meat (also in poultry, seafood and fish) is easily absorbed by your body and is a significant source of your dietary iron. Red meat also supplies you with vitamin B12 and zinc. The former is required for red blood cell formation, neurological function and DNA synthesis, and the latter helps stimulate the activity of at least 100 different enzymes and helps to keep your immune system working effectively. Further, red meat provides protein, which helps to build your bones and muscles. People have been eating meat for millennia and have developed digestive systems well equipped to handle it.

Notwithstanding, the overwhelming majority of red meat consumed in the developed world today is processed: raised in a factory environment, fed grain-based feed and given growth-promoting hormones and antibiotics and some animals, after being slaughtered, are further treated with nitrates, preservatives and various chemicals. The findings of all three studies described above demonstrate the harm of eating too much red and processed meat and stress the health and environmental benefits of a Mediterranean diet.

 
An urgent challenge
 
According to the EAT-Lancet Commission’s authors, “Providing healthy diets from sustainable food systems is an urgent and pressing challenge”. As the global population continues to grow - projected to reach 10bn by 2050 - and become wealthier, there is expected to be a concomitant increase in unhealthy diets comprised of red meat, processed food and sugar. To address this vast and escalating challenge, populations will need to combine significant dietary changes with enhanced food production and reduced food waste.
 
The impact of food waste
 
Before broaching some of the challenges associated with changing the way we eat collectively let us briefly describe the magnitude and effect of food wastage. According to the United Nation’s (UN) 1.3bn tonnes of food are wasted every year, which is about 33% of the total produced. The cost of global food losses and waste amounts to roughly US$990bn and yet some 800m people worldwide do not get enough to eat and 2bn people are overweight.
 
Further, food wastage is estimated to release the equivalent of 3.3bn tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. The total volume of water used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted (250km³) is equivalent to three times the volume of Lake Geneva. Similarly, 1.4bn hectares of land - 28% of the world's agricultural area - is used to produce food that is lost or wasted. And agriculture is responsible for a majority of threats to at-risk plant and animal species tracked by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. 
 
Changing what we eat and how we produce food will save lives and the planet
 
According to Alan Dangour, Professor in Food and Nutrition for Global Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), “The EAT-Lancet Commission’s analysis demonstrates that shifts in our diets can have enormous beneficial effects on health and also substantially reduce our impacts on the environment.  This significant ‘win-win’ for health and the environment is not a new finding, but this analysis, which for the first time defines environmental boundaries for the food system, is the most advanced ever conducted”.
 
In a similar vein, Tara Garnett, a contributor to the EAT-Lancet Commission and a principal investigator of another research project on the future of food, also suggests that there’s nothing new in the Commission’s report but its fundamental message is that, “We’re not going to address our environmental problems unless we address the problems caused by the food system and we’re not going to address the problems caused by the food system unless we shift the way we eat collectively and globally”.

 
Rebalancing unhealthy diets is a significant challenge
 
Changing how we eat collectively, which Garnett and others suggest is necessary to reduce NCDs and enhance our environment, is not going to be easy. This is because it would involve cutting by half our consumption of red meat, processed food and sugar, and doubling our consumption of vegetables, fruit, pulses and nuts. For people living in the US and UK it would be even more challenging because the EAT-Lancet Commission ranks the US 43rd and the UK 23rd for their respective unhealthy diets out of the 195 nations in its study. It is suggested that in order to adopt a healthy diet Americans would need to eat 84% less red meat and six times more beans and lentils, and British people would have to eat 77% less red meat and 15 times more nuts and seeds.

Countries with the lowest rates of diet-related deaths are Israel, France, Spain and Japan. The highest rates are reported to be found in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and the Marshall Islands. According to the Commission’s authors a Mediterranean-type-diet, “is what we should all be eating if we are concerned about our health and that of the planet”: it lowers the incidences of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, enables more environmentally helpful use of land and reduces carbon emissions.

 
The Mediterranean diet
 
The Mediterranean diet has been around for millennia and tends to be more of a lifestyle than a diet. It entails significantly lower amounts of beef, dairy products, sugar, soft drinks, pastries and processed foods; higher amounts of fish, fruit, nuts and salads, and no pasta, French fries and pastries. Unlike fashionable commercial diets associated with the weight management market, the Mediterranean diet does not have a set of specific rules that focus on losing weight, but instead emphasises eating fresh food over a lifetime. Also, the Mediterranean diet has been well studied. Research suggests that it is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and cardiovascular mortality because of its significantly lower amounts of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, (the "bad" cholesterol) which is more likely to build up deposits in your arteries. Other benefits include reduced incidence of cancer, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Further, women who follow a Mediterranean diet have a reduced risk of breast cancer.
 
The PREDIMED study
 
Findings of a landmark clinical trial, entitled “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet”, was published in the June 2013 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). Popularly known as the PREDIMED study (Prevencion con Dieta Mediterranea), it tested the impact of two Mediterranean diets on cardiovascular risk. The first included a Mediterranean diet plus 30 grams of mixed nuts per day and the second was a Mediterranean diet plus at least four tablespoons a day of extra-virgin olive oil. The two diets were then compared to a low-fat diet, which is popularly advocated and pursued in the US and UK and among other developed nations and discourages the consumption of any high-fat items such as butter, cheese, oil, meats and pastries.
 
The low-fat diet
 
In the 1960s low-fat diets as opposed to high-fat, high-cholesterol diets were considered to promote heart health. By the late 1980s and early 1990s the low-fat diet was advocated by doctors, policy makers, the food industry and the media although there was no hard evidence to demonstrate it prevented heart disease and promoted weight loss. Notwithstanding, the low-fat-diet became an important part of the large and rapidly growing global weight management market, which is valued at some US$169bn and projected to grow at a CAGR of 2.4% and reach a value US$279bn by 2023. Interestingly, in the 80s and 90s, as the low-fat diet became an institution in the US and UK so the prevalence of overweight and obesity increased. Only recently has the low-fat diet been challenged as scientific evidence about fats increased.
 
A significant study with some methodological challenges
 
The PREDIMED study involved 7,447 people between 55 and 80 who were free from heart disease, came from 11 study centres across Spain and were randomly assigned to one of the three diets for five years. Findings suggested that the Mediterranean diet significantly reduced the risk of heart attack, stroke and cardio-vascular mortality compared to the low-fat diet. However, researchers discovered flaws with the study’s methodology and withdraw their findings. Most significantly, not all participants were randomly assigned to their diet and this could have influenced their findings.
 
Revised study of the Mediterranean diet
 
Researchers adjusted their methodology for its "irregularities in the randomization procedures" and published “new” findings in the June 2018 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), which confirmed the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet for adults at high risk for heart disease and found that the Mediterranean diet, plus olive oil or nuts, reduced risk for heart events by 30% compared to a low-fat diet. Lead author Miguel Ángel Martínez-González suggested that only about 10% of participants were affected in their earlier study reported in 2013, and their 2018 analysis made researchers, "More convinced than ever of the robustness of the protection by the Mediterranean diet against cardiovascular disease”. According to Jeffrey Drazen, editor-in-chief of the NEJM, "Medical professionals and their patients can use the republished information with confidence". While reaction to the study’s initial findings was disappointing, experts are encouraged by the adjusted findings, which confirm the heart-health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, particularly in adults at high risk for heart disease. Notwithstanding, experts emphasise the significance of sustaining a healthy diet over time.
  
The health benefits of the Japanese diet
 
The Mediterranean diet is not the only diet, which has proven to have significant health benefits. The Japanese diet, which is low in calories and saturated fat and high in nutrients, especially phytonutrients such as antioxidants and flavonoids, found in different coloured vegetables, also has considerable health benefits. Findings of two studies; one published in the April 2017 edition of PLOS.ONE, and another published in the March 2016 edition of the British Medical Journal demonstrate that, closer adherence to a Japanese diet resulted in a significantly lower risk of death from NCDs and in particular from cardiovascular disease or stroke. Japan has the highest life expectancy of any country: 90 years for women and 84 for men. Okinawa, in southernmost Japan, has the highest number of centenarians in the world as well as the lowest risk of age-related diseases such as cancer and heart disease. There are nearly 800 centenarians in Okinawa, which has a population of 1,368,000. The diet of the Okinawan people has been little influenced by the dietary changes influenced by western culture, which also have been seen in more urban Japan.
 
Takeaways
 
All the research findings we describe in this Commentary confirm the adage that, “You are what you eat”. Nutrients from the food you eat provide support for all the cells in your body, which have different “shelf lives”. For example, your skin cells live for about a month and your red blood cells for about four months. So, your body is constantly regenerating new cells to replace those that have “expired”. The health of your new cells is partly determined by how well you have been eating. A diet high on processed red meat and low on nutrients does not help in this regeneration process. But a nutrient rich, whole food diet can help to build your cells so that they work better to help you recover from common illnesses and the wear-and-tear of everyday life and make you less susceptible to disease.
 
Although our concern about healthy eating has intensified in recent years, the phrase, “you are what you eat” is not new. In 1826 Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante, "Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es[Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are]. However, the phrase did not emerge in English until the 1920s when nutritionist Victor Lindlahr, who believed that food controls health, developed the Catabolic Diet. According to Lindlahr, "Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat". And in 1942, he published a book entitled, “You Are What You Eat: how to win and keep health with diet”. Eat like the Greeks, live healthier lives and save our planet.
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  • A recent study suggests that a drug combined with dietary and lifestyle changes can prevent those with pre-diabetes from progressing to full blown type-2 diabetes (T2DM)
  • T2DM kills millions and cost billions
  • 35% of adults in the UK, and 50% in the US now have prediabetes
  • The UK has launched the world’s first nationwide diabetes prevention program called Healthier You based on personal education and training
  • Prevalence rates of T2DM are still rising 
  • Research on the gut-brain axis suggests that drugs have a role to play in preventing T2DM
  • An optimum strategy might consist of appropriate drug therapy combined with appropriate education, which leverages ubiquitous 21st century communications infrastructures
  
A new therapeutic approach to pre-diabetes
 
Findings of an international clinical study published in The Lancet in 2017 suggest that 3.0mg of the drug liraglutide, may reduce diabetes risk by 80% in individuals with pre-diabetes and obesity, and thereby significantly contribute to the prevention of type-2 diabetes (T2DM). The study investigated whether 3.0mg of liraglutide would delay the onset of T2DM safely in people with pre-diabetes.
 
Liraglutide is the active solution in a drug marketed as Victoza, which obtained FDA approval in 2010.  Victoza is available in 6 mg/ml preā€‘filled pens, and is used as an adjunct to diet and exercise to improve glycaemic control in adults with T2DM. Victoza is used also as an add-on to other diabetes medicines, when these, together with exercise and diet, are not providing adequate control of blood glucose.
  

Pre-diabetes

Pre-diabetes is a condition that develops when your blood sugar levels are at the very high end of the normal range, but not quite high enough for a diagnosis of T2DM.  Risk factors include age, weight and ethnicity. People of South Asian origin are up to six times more likely to develop pre-diabetes as a genetic susceptibility means they start to develop insulin resistance at a much lower Body Mass Index (BMI). With pre-diabetes your body begins to have trouble using the hormone insulin, which is necessary to transport glucose, which your body uses for energy, into your cells via the bloodstream. Pre-diabetes means that your body either does not make enough insulin or it does not use it well (insulin resistance). If you do not have enough insulin or if you are insulin resistant, you can build up too much glucose in your blood, leading to higher-than-normal blood glucose level and perhaps pre-diabetes. Blood glucose is measured using a test called HbA1c, which provides a picture of your blood sugar levels over the past two to three months. It counts the number of glucose molecules stuck to the red blood cells, which reveals how much sugar you have carried in your blood over the two to three month lifespan of the red blood cell. If your blood sugar is between 5.7 to 6.4%, this is called pre-diabetes (6.5 is officially diabetes). Dr Roni Sharvanu Saha, a consultant in acute medicine, diabetes and endocrinology at St George's Hospital, London describes pre-diabetes:
 


Prevalence and cost 
 
It is estimated that 35% of adults in the UK, and 50% in the US now have pre-diabetes. Around 5-10% of these will progress to "full-blown" T2DM in any given year. Because there are no obvious symptoms for pre-diabetes the overwhelming majority of people with the condition do not know they have it, and are not aware of the long-term risks to their health, which include T2DM and its complications: heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, blindness and lower limb amputation. Over the past decade, the prevalence of T2DM has increased by almost two-thirds, and is now one of the world’s most common long-term health conditions.
 
An estimated £14bn is spent each year on treating diabetes and its complications in the UK. Treating obesity-linked illnesses costs £10bn a year. The annual medical cost of treating diabetes in the US is about US$176bn, and the cost of diabetes in reduced productivity is some US$69bn each year.
 
The gut-brain axis

The study published in The Lancet was led by John Wilding, Professor of Medicine, University of Liverpool, and is a continuation of work he started in 1996 when part of a team at Hammersmith Hospital in London, which first showed that the hormone GLP-1, on which liraglutide is based, was involved in the control of food intake.
 
Over the past two decades scientists have increased their understanding of the two-way communications between the gut and the brain, not only through nerve connections between the organs, but also through biochemical signals, such as hormones that circulate in the body. Dr Sufyan Hussain, Specialist Registrar and Honorary Clinical Lecturer in Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism at Imperial College London, describes the gut-brain axis.
 
 
Targeting gut-brain pathways

An increasing number of different gut microbial species are now postulated to regulate brain function in health and disease. The westernized diet, which is high in saturated fats, red meats, and carbohydrates, and low in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, and poultry, is hypothesized to be the cause of high obesity levels in many countries. For example, 63% and 69% of adults in the UK and US respectively are either overweight or obese, and therefore at risk of T2DM. Experimental and epidemiological evidence suggest that the gut microbiota is responsible for significant immunologic, neuronal, and endocrine changes that lead to obesity. The gut–brain axis influences obesity, and researchers such as Wilding have targeted communication pathways between the nervous system and the digestive system in an attempt to treat metabolic disorders. 
 
Bariatric surgery and diabetes

A previous HealthPad Commentary describes how bariatric surgery is associated with gut-brain signals, which promote the remission of diabetes in patients. Many of the mechanisms that underlie how bariatric surgery produces metabolic benefits remain unclear, but researchers do know that such surgical procedures elevate levels of the hormones peptide YY (PYY), and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) that help to reduce appetite and have effects on the central nervous system.
 
Liraglutide

Liraglutide is a GLP-1 receptor agonist, which interacts with the part of the brain that controls appetite and energy intake. The drug slows food leaving the stomach, helps prevent your liver from making too much sugar, and helps the pancreas to produce more insulin when your blood sugar levels are high. The most common side effects with liraglutide are nausea and diarrhoea.
 
The clinical study

The three-year study followed 2,254 adults with pre-diabetes at 191 research sites in 27 countries worldwide. Participants were randomly allocated to either liraglutide or a placebo delivered by injection under the skin once daily for 160 weeks. Participants in the study were also placed on a reduced calorie diet and advised to increase their physical activity. The study showed that three years of continuous treatment with once-daily 3.0mg of liraglutide, in combination with diet and increased physical activity, reduces the risk of developing T2DM by 80% and results in greater sustained weight loss compared to the placebo.

"On the basis of our findings, liraglutide 3.0mg can provide us with a new therapeutic approach for patients with obesity and pre-diabetes to substantially reduce their risk of developing type 2 diabetes and its related complications . . . . It is very exciting to see a laboratory observation translated into a medicine that has the potential to help so many people, even though it has taken over 20 years,” says Wilding.
 
World’s first nationwide diabetes prevention program

NHS England, Public Health England and Diabetes UK launched the world’s first nationwide diabetes prevention strategy, Healthier You, in 2016. It provides personal coaches to educate people at risk of T2DM in healthy eating and lifestyle, and personal trainers to provide bespoke physical exercise programs that are expected to help people lose weight. By 2020 Healthier You expects to be rolled out to the whole country with 100,000 referrals available each year after that.
 
Extrapolating from previous studies

International clinical studies have shown evidence that lifestyle interventions such as those used in Healthier You can prevent or delay the onset of T2DM. However, the validity of generalizing the results of previous prevention studies is uncertain. Interventions that work in some societies may not work in others, because social, economic, and cultural forces influence diet and exercise. The UK’s Public Accounts Committee has expressed doubts about the way Healthier You is setting about its task, and has warned that, "By itself, it will not be enough to stem the rising number of people with diabetes".
 
Failure of the diabetes establishment and the Public Accounts Committee

Healthier You is a slow, labor-intensive and expensive program, which is unlikely to have more than a relatively small impact.Let us explain. Assume that after 2020 Healthier You obtains its projected annual 100,000 referrals, and that they all successfully reduce their blood glucose levels with diet and exercise. Also assume that the prevalence of pre-diabetes in the UK does not increase, (which is not the case) then Healthier You will take more than 110 years to counsel the estimated 11.5m people in the UK with pre-diabetes: which is long after most people with pre-diabetes would have died from natural causes.
 
21st century communications

Successfully changing the diets and lifestyles of the 11.5m people in the UK believed to have pre-diabetes, and slowing their progression to T2DM will require 21st century technologies. Inexpensive and ubiquitous healthcare technologies used to educate and support diets and lifestyles abound. Increasingly people are demanding devices that track weight, blood pressure, daily exercise and diet. From apps to wearable’s, healthcare technology lets people feel in control of their health, while also providing health professionals with more patient data than ever before. With more than 100,000 healthcare apps, rapid growth in wearables, and 75% of the UK population now owning a smartphone, digital technology is well positioned to significantly improve healthcare education and management.
 
Takeaways

Has Healthier You missed the elephant in the room? Wilding’s study suggests that an exercise and diet program needs to be complemented with a sustained program of appropriate drugs if we are to reduce those with pre-diabetes from progressing to full blown T2DM. Further, simple arithmetic suggests that the education element of such a strategy about diet and lifestyle should leverage ubiquitous 21st century communications infrastructures if they are to be efficacious.
 
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  • It is one of the most serious global health challenges of the 21st century
  • It causes high incidence of morbidity, disability and premature mortality
  • It affects 30% of children and 62% of adults in the UK
  • It costs the UK £47bn a year
  • For 40 years official statistics have under-reported its main cause
  • Doctors have neither been able to reduce nor prevent it
  • Behavioural scientists are well positioned to reduce it
  
A major 21st century health challenge is under-reported for 40 years
 
A 2016 study by the UK’s Behavioural Insight Team (BIT) found that, for the past 40 years, official UK statistics have under-reported the main cause of it. The Office for National Statistics failed to pick up the fact that people consistently under-report the principal cause of it. “Such a large underestimate has misinformed policy debates, and led to less effective strategies to combat it,” says Michael Hallsworth, co-author of the study. Jamie Jenkins, head of health analysis at the Office for National Statistics, replied, “We are actively investigating a range of alternative data sources to improve our understanding of the causes of obesity”.
  
Obesity should be treated like terrorism

Although we know how to prevent obesity, it devastates the lives of millions and costs billions. In the UK obesity affects 33% of primary school children, and 62% of adults. Its prevalence among adults rose from 15% to 26% between 1993 and 2014. In 20 years, obese adults are expected to increase to 73%.
 
The UK spends £640m on programs to prevent obesity. Each year, the NHS spends £8bn treating it, and obesity has the second-largest overall economic impact on the UK; generating an annual loss equivalent to 3% of GDP. 
 
The World Health Organization warns that obesity is, “one of the most serious global public health challenges of the 21st century”. The UK’s Health Secretary says obesity is a “national emergency”, and the UK’s Chief Medical Officer argues that obesity should be treated similarly to “terrorism”.
 
Here we suggest how behavioural science rather than doctors can help to reduce and prevent obesity.
 

Vast, persistent and growing

Although we know how to address obesity, there are few effective interventions in place to reduce it. According to a 2014 McKinsey Global Institute study, the UK Government’s efforts to tackle obesity are, ''too fragmented to be effective'', while investment in its prevention is, ''low given the scale of obesity''. Being obese in childhood has both short and long-term consequences. Once established, obesity is notoriously difficult to treat. This raises the importance of prevention. Obese children are more likely to become obese adults, and thereby have a significantly higher risk of morbidity, disability and premature mortality. The global rise in obesity has led to an urgent call for action, but still its prevalence, which is significant, is rapidly increasing.
 

The incidence of certain cancers is significantly higher in obese people, and is expected to increase 45% in the next two decades. Professor Karol Sikora, a leading cancer expert, describes the association, but says we do not know the reasons why, and Dr Seth Rankin, Founder and CEO of the London Doctors Clinicsuggests that virtually every health problem known to mankind is made worse by obesity:

 

Prof. Karol Sikora - Cancer linked to obesity


Dr Seth Rankin - Can being overweight lead to health problems?
 
 The success and growth of Nudge Units

A previous Commentary drew attention to the fact that obesity is connected with a relationship between the gut and brain. Gut microbiota are important in the development of the brain, and research suggests that an increasing number of different gut microbial species regulate brain functions to cause obesity. Notwithstanding, the UK’s Behavioural Insight Team (BIT), which started life in 2010 as a government policy group known as the "Nudge Unit", revolutionized the way we get people to change their entrenched behaviours, and this has important implications for public policy strategies to reduce and prevent obesity.
 
Under the leadership of David Halpern, the BIT has been very successful and has quadrupled in size since it was spun out of government in 2014. Now a private company with some 60 people, the Nudge Unit permeates almost every area of government policy, and also is working with Bloomberg Philanthropies on a US$42m project to help solve some of the biggest problems facing US cities. The UK’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has set up its own nudge unit, and nudge teams are being established throughout the world.
 
The genesis of Nudge Units

It all started in 2008 with the ground-breaking publication on behavioral economics, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, written by US academics Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. Their thesis suggests that simply making small changes to the way options are framed and presented to people “nudges” them to change their lifestyles without actually restricting their personal freedoms. Politicians loved the thesis, not least because it was cheap and easy to implement, and ‘Nudge’ became compulsory reading among politicians and civil servants. “Nudge Units” were set up in the White House and in 10 Downing Street to improve public services and save money by tackling previously intractable policy issues.
 
Nudging people to change

The UK’s Nudge Unit has, among other things, signed up an extra 100,000 organ donors a year, persuaded 20% more people to consider switching energy provider, and doubled the number of army applicants. Now it is turning its attention to health and healthcare, and already has implemented behavior change strategies that motivate individuals to initiate and maintain healthier lifestyles. The Unit’s strategies that have demonstrated self-efficacy and self management are examples that can be further incorporated into lifestyle change programs, which help people maintain healthy habits even after a program ends and thereby be a significant factor in reducing and preventing obesity.
 
Takeaway
 
Doctors understand the physiology of obesity, but they do not understand the psychology of people living with it. Doctors are equipped to treat the morbidities and disabilities associated with obesity, but ill-equipped to reduce and prevent it. The sooner the Nudge Unit is tasked with reducing and preventing obesity the better.
 
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