Obesity is causing the premature deaths of 9,000 people a year in the UK. It contributes to heart disease, cancers and diabetes, not to mention shortness of breath and low self-esteem. But despite messages everywhere promoting the desirability of slimness and the dangers of being overweight, our national waistline is continuing to expand. The British are now the second-fattest people in the developed world, dwarfed only by the ever-expanding girth of Americans.
Shocking research to be published by ministers this week will show that the nation is quickly catching up with our larger US cousins. Unless drastic action is taken to slim down, we are facing an obesity time bomb with devastating consequences for the nation's health.
Three years ago, 17 per cent of boys and 16 per cent of girls were obese. Now government experts forecast that by the year 2010, 19 per cent of boys and 22 per cent of girls will be obese.
The figures make depressing reading for health ministers who have set themselves a target of halting the year-on-year increase in obesity in under-11s by 2010. The replacement of traditional leisure pursuits such as bike riding and playing outdoors with video games and surfing the internet will take their toll among children.
Research by government experts found that children from working-class and middle-class homes will both fall victim to a sedentary lifestyle and a poor diet. By 2010, 462,000 boys in working-class households and 345,000 in middle-class homes will be officially obese. And among girls, 392,000 in middle-class homes will be obese, along with 492,000 with working-class parents.
Among adults the increase is more rapid and even more alarming. Almost 13 million adults will be technically obese by 2010 compared with just over nine million in 2003.
Obesity is a significant contributory factor to ailments including heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, and has been linked to up to a third of cancers. Respiratory problems caused by excess weight include asthma and musculoskeletal diseases such as arthritis, are caused by being obese. Obesity and lack of physical activity affects hormone balance.
"Not all people with diabetes are overweight, but over 80 per cent of those diagnosed with type-2 diabetes are overweight," said Simon O'Neill, director of care and policy at Diabetes UK.
Alongside chronic health problems come low self-esteem, and problems in personal relationships and in finding work. Then there are the practical difficulties of finding suitable clothes and shoes, and flying long-haul.
Some children are now too heavy for standard car-safety seats and manufacturers have begun making larger models to accommodate them. Clothes sizes have been increased and "super-size" clothes shops are doing a roaring trade. In some hospitals, X-ray tables have been unable to cope with patients who weigh more than 25 stone.
Staffordshire's general hospital has spent £60,000 on new X-ray equipment for the obese, while the crematorium in Stafford has had to divert coffins to Shrewsbury because they are too large. Some hospitals have ordered special wheelchairs, lavatories and walking frames to accommodate obese patients.
It emerged last week that there are more overweight people in the world than suffer malnutrition. But there is still a great discrepancy between fat and thin nations. While only 3 per cent of the population in Korea and Japan are overweight, in the United States more than 31 per cent are clinically obese.
Obesity is defined as comparing weight to height by dividing the weight measurement by the square of the height. The Body Mass Index shows that those with a BMI of 18.5 are underweight while those over 30 are obese.
Nutritionists say people are consuming fewer calories than in the past, but eat too much junk food. The other chief culprit is a sedentary lifestyle. Whereas 50 years ago children walked to school, families washed their clothes by hand and bicycled or walked to work, today people send an email rather than walking to the post office for a stamp, and drive to work.
"Obesity is an energy imbalance equation," said Anna Denny, a nutrition scientist with the British Nutrition Foundation. "The reason people are getting obese is they are eating more processed foods. Fast food contains lots of fat and sugar. It is more energy dense. If people have a high intake of fruit and vegetables, they don't contain so much energy per gram and it is less easy for people to gain weight."
Nutritionists blame parents for reinforcing the abuse of food by using sweets as a reward for good behaviour. Instead of such sedentary leisure activities as sitting in the cinema, families should fly kites or walk on the beach.
The Department of Health has a plan for tackling excess weight and is spending millions of pounds combating the near-epidemic trend. The campaign to get people to eat five pieces of fruit and vegetables each day, as well as the drive for healthy eating in schools, is aimed at encouraging people to make small but significant lifestyle changes.
The Government has also urged food manufacturers to reduce sugar in food and reduce fat. Health trainers have been introduced into the NHS to help the chronically overweight reduce their waistlines, while GPs have enforced the "personal responsibility message" with overweight patients.
Those worried about being overweight are advised that even taking small measures - getting off the bus a stop earlier or taking the stairs instead of the lift - will help burn the calories.
Additional reporting by Patrick Whistler
What the perfect family should do to stay perfect
Anna Denny, of the British Nutrition Foundation, advises the Powell family, of Isleworth, West London, on how they can stay healthy, happy and slim
MELISSA POWELL, 37, 9ST 7LB (62 KILOS)
Weight maintenance is important because people tend to put on weight as they get older. In Britain, 33 per cent of women are overweight. Exercise is as important for parents as it is for their children and should be a part of everyday fun, such as ice-skating or bike-riding as a family.
Fruit and vegetables are important too. We know adults do not have enough of it in their diet. On average, people eat less than half the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables a day.
Calcium is vital because women can have problems with bone density in later life. Things such as iron and folic acid are essential too, especially to guard against anaemia in women who are of childbearing age. Good sources for these are liver, yeast extract, green leafy vegetables and bread.
STEVE POWELL, 43, 11ST 7LB (74 KILOS)
Men are more prone than women to carry extra weight in the abdominal area. In Britain, 41 per cent of men are overweight, and excessive weight gain puts them at increased risk of developing heart disease and type-2 diabetes.
Plenty of fibre in the diet is a good way of helping to keep cholesterol levels in check. Men should also try not to drink more than three to four units of alcohol a day - about two pints of beer.
They also need to keep up levels of things such as zinc and selenium, which help them to have healthy sperm, and can be found in such food as brazil nuts, seafood, meat and poultry.
Regular exercise is vital to stave off the threat of heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, breathlessness, a flabby body, and low energy. Most men have far more than the recommended six grams of salt a day, so opting for low-salt options can also help them to stay healthy and keep blood pressure down.
BEN POWELL, EIGHT, 3ST 7LB (22 KILOS)
EMILY POWELL, SIX, 2ST 2LB (14 KILOS)
ANNABEL POWELL, FIVE, 1ST 8LB (12 KILOS)
Healthy habits start at a young age and it is important for children to be encouraged to take PE lessons and after-school clubs.
Cookery is another skill that children need to start early in life, so that they grow up to develop a healthy relationship with food.
Growing children use lots of energy, and need plenty of calcium through things such as drinking milk and eating cheese sandwiches.
Iron is also important and good sources of this include lean red meat or dried apricots.
A good supply of protein, calcium, iron and vitamins A and D are important during this time. Calcium is needed for healthy tooth development and, with vitamin D, helps make bones stronger.
Regular meals and a healthy snack in the morning and afternoon are keys to making sure children get enough food to keep up with the energy they expend.
Getting into a good bedtime routine and having plenty of sleep is also important.Reuse content