Is breakfast cereal making you fat?

Dr Christian Jessen [right]

Dr Christian Jessen

I read an awful lot of rubbish about health. Magazines are full of tips: how carbs should never be eaten after 7pm, how you must drink two litres of water a day or you will desiccate, and how wearing magnets and copper bracelets will cure your various ailments. All nonsense, of course.

But the subject that inspires the most twaddle always seems to be diet and weight issues. I read how genes and hormones and mixing various food types are all responsible for our obese nation, how the average Joe cannot possibly be to blame, and even how we doctors must learn to be more tolerant of, and not discriminate against, the overweight. Odd, really, as I had always understood my job was to advise against unhealthy activities and help patients onto a better pathway.

It’s true there are small influences that determine our likelihood to gain weight, but in many ways they are irrelevant and merely confuse the issue. The bottom line is that if you eat too much and exercise too little, you will get fat. End of story. If you are fat, it is of your own doing. There, I said it. The most unPC thing anyone could ever say. But it has to be said. After all, it’s only what you put in your mouth that makes you fat, nothing else.

Before I get lynched for being a body fascist I should point out that I am not unsympathetic: while weight problems are self-inflicted, the reasons why people eat too much are complex and often understandable. Yes, there are genetic influences that determine how you metabolise your food, and whether you store or burn more calories, but I have realised from looking after patients with weight issues that they are often worryingly clueless about what is actually in the foods they eat, by which I mean fat and sugar contents, etc. Few are taught these things at school, and this should be addressed, but another important reason is that food labelling can be misleading — billions of pounds of clever marketing is likely to influence all but the brightest of sparks.

The most recently exposed example of this is the nutritional horrors of our breakfast cereals. Seen as the healthiest way to start the day, many of the popular brands contain more sugar than a piece of chocolate cake or a doughnut — then people sprinkle sugar on top. Those cereals that aren’t quite so sugar- laden often have high salt levels. The nutrition label is usually based on a 30g or 40g serving — trying weighing that out and see how often you eat only that amount. Most of us easily double it.

The problem is actually an evolutionary one. We evolved to crave salt and sugars, both rare in our developmental past and to be taken advantage of when found. Today, however, they are everywhere, but millions of years of evolution are still hard at work, encouraging us to gorge on those sugary, salty, fatty foods. While it allowed us to grow stronger and faster in our prehistoric past, today it’s killing us. The sooner we can accept this, the sooner we can get our collective weight back on course.

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