Now Christmas is over, many of us will be diligently ignoring the bathroom scales to avoid seeing how much all that Christmas pudding and mulled wine has added to our waistline. After all, putting on a few extra holiday pounds is a story as old as time – and it can be notoriously difficult to shed this weight in the cold, demoralizing months of January and February.
However, in recent years this need to lose a few extra holiday pounds has been superseded by a much more worrying trend: the rise of nationwide obesity.
Indeed, weight-related health issues are a growing concern, with the total number of obese Brits having effectively doubled since the 1990s. Around 3,000 NHS ward admissions a day are linked with obesity, and an estimated 31,000 people a year die from related cardiovascular diseases. This makes obesity a bigger killer than smoking in England and Scotland.
Reducing the burden of obesity will of course require a multi-layered approach, though increasing education and public awareness would be a major step. Health experts and policymakers should unite around the goal of giving the public the knowledge and skills they need to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle. After all, valuing our health starts at home; and so it is time to go back to basics with nutrition.
One way to do this would be to update the Eatwell Guide; the UK’s official set of dietary guidelines which hasn’t been reviewed since 2016. As a result, the current Guide has some stark omissions – particularly on the links between oral health and nutrition. For instance, it makes no mention of the fact that chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes, are directly linked to periodontitis (gum disease) and obesity.
A formal review process by the government would be an excellent way to draw attention to this, whilst highlighting fundamentals such as reducing sugar intake for better dietary health. In addition, a new guide could offer more practical advice for how individuals can improve their diets day-to-day, rather than merely sketching what ideal nutrition looks like on paper.
This might include a range of ‘dietary changes’ that anyone can make to nudge their dietary health in the right direction. Swapping sugary snacks to fresh fruit; choosing wholegrain options; or drinking water over juices, are small changes which can make a huge difference over time. Additionally, it could advocate chewing sugar free gum (SFG) between meals as a dietary aid.
A new study from the US this week flags SFG as a potential dietary aid which tends to be overlooked in debates on nutrition. Using data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), it investigated the impact of regular gum use on both the oral and dietary health of participants. The researchers found that self-reported use of chewing gum is associated with improved diet quality overall, and a decrease in the intake of snacks and added sugars.
Dr Taylor Wallace, the lead author of the study, summed up his conclusions: “as long as it is sugar-free, chewing gum is likely an effective tool for improving your diet and health”. Despite the limitations of the study, it is certainly credible that SFG can play a positive role in weight management – especially considering the other available research.
Ιn 2015, a study by Chinese researchers found that SFG can increase feelings of satiety in fasting conditions; suggesting that “chewing sugarless gum may be an effective weight control method because it has the potential to control appetite and food intake”. Another study in 2018 found that chewing gum helps to reduce hunger sensations and hence control snack intake.
If we are going to effectively address obesity, then this is the kind of direct, evidence-based actionable advice which must be advocated for. The fact is many people would struggle to follow an overly prescriptive nutritional model, no matter how well-supported it is by science. This is why including a number of practical ‘tips and tricks’ is crucial for creating genuine behaviour change.
The onus is on the current government (or indeed the next) to make sure the British public has the knowledge and tools we need to live healthier, happier, and hopefully longer lives. A brand new Eatwell Guide could be just the late Christmas present we need to get 2024 off to a flying start.
Dr Maria Papavergos is a general dentist and practicing yoga instructor with over 10 years of clinical experience. She founded The Lifestyle Dentist to help spread her preventative philosophy and lifestyle-centered approach to oral health.