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The real reason you’re overweight

Rachael Anne Hill
6 February 2012

Almost half of all men and a third of all women in the UK are overweight.  A shocking statistic in itself.  However, when you consider that between the ages of 55 to 64 this figure rises to almost 80% of men and 70% of women things start to get really scary - and it's a problem that isn't going to go away.

In fact, over the past forty years obesity rates have trebled, the number of people diagnosed with diabetes has doubled and the incidence of heart disease has increased by a massive 25%  - and things only look set to get worse.  So why are we facing the biggest obesity epidemic ever known?  What's really causing our bellies to balloon and our girths to grow?

[Useful: Can you spot the healthier option?]

Research shows that although exercise and activity play a vital role in our battle against the bulge the amount of calories we use on a day to day basis has not declined that much over the past forty years.  Certainly not enough to account for the sudden increase in obesity rates.  The amount of calories we consume however has, and according to researchers at Harvard University there is a very definite reason why — our fear of the kitchen.

David Cutler and colleagues at Harvard have found a direct link between the amount of food we eat that has been prepared outside the home and our expanding waistlines.  Their study, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives shows that when we don't have to cook our meals, we tend to eat more of them.  This is especially true in the States.  Since 1977, the amount of time Americans spend cooking has reduced by about 50% and yet during that time they have begun to consume the equivalent of half an extra meal of calories a day.  During that same time period the number of people classified as obese has tripled.

So why do we consume more calories when we eat food that has been commercially prepared?

[Relevant: Lose a stone in a month without crash dieting]

I believe one of the main reasons is because we are simply unaware of what's really in our food.  Food manufacturers know that nothing tickles our taste buds more than fat, salt and sugar.  These are the three magic ingredients that make food taste good and, more importantly, keep us coming back for more so commercially prepared food tends to contain considerably more of them than we might add ourselves.

Studies also show portion sizes have routinely increased over the past 40 years which again, all adds to the number of calories we are consuming.  And finally, temptation certainly plays a part.  After all, a curry or pizza that can arrive on your doorstep within minutes can be far more difficult to resist than one that requires an hour's effort in the kitchen.  And it seems this connection between commercially prepared foods and rising obesity levels is not just limited to the Western world.

Cutler and his colleagues examined cooking habits across several cultures and found that, without exception, the more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity.  In fact, the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more readily than female participation in the labor force, social class or income.  This is supported by another study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association which found that poor women who routinely cooked were more likely to eat a healthy diet than well-to-do women who did not.

So, my top tip for a super simple, but highly effective weight loss plan?  Simple.  Swap the couch for the kitchen and eat pretty much whatever you like as long as you make it yourself!

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