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Does being rich make you thinner?

Your income and environment can make a big difference to the weight loss methods you choose and their success rates, according to new research. So, are you a victim of the great dieting class divide?

Live in a low-income area and you’re more than twice as likely to be obese as those in the more affluent end of town, according to a new study from the University of Sheffield.

But that’s not all: weight loss methods differ considerably between rich and poor, too. People in the most deprived areas are twice as likely to have used diet pills or meal replacements, but least likely to have joined a slimming club.

‘”This study shows that both obesity and the approaches people use to manage their weight vary according to whether you live in a wealthy area or a deprived area,” says Dr Clare Relton, who led the study.

The reason for these differing approaches? Much of it could come down to cost and motivation, the researchers suggest. It’s probably slightly cheaper to buy pills over the counter once a month than to commit to a whole new regime that also involves paying to attend classes every week.

It’s worth noting, of course, that both weight loss medication and slimming club referrals are available through the NHS, where appropriate. So people who qualify for free prescriptions wouldn’t necessarily have to pay for either method anyway.

The most effective medication used to treat obesity is Xenical, which works by binding to enzymes to speed up fat digestion. “The problem is that you can suffer severe diarrhoea if you eat a high-fat meal when you’re taking these tablets,” explains NHS weight loss expert Dr Sally Norton.

“So if people fancy a fatty meal, they simply don’t take the pills. And other over-the-counter diet pills just don’t work, particularly not in the long term.”

Does eating well cost more?

So what actually works? And what’s stopping people in poorer areas from adopting these methods? Most experts agree that the only way to reach – and remain at – a healthy weight is to adopt a balanced diet and exercise regime that you can sustain over time. Quick fixes are never the solution. But buying healthy food and cooking meals from scratch takes money, motivation and time that many of us just don’t have, right? Not necessarily so.

Let’s consider the money issue first of all. “If you look at much of Asia, the people are very poor but they enjoy a much healthier diet than we do,” says eating therapist Yvonne Green.

“They grow and eat far more vegetables. The culture is to eat and cook these home-grown foods, and the whole family sits together to eat. The emphasis is on fresh produce, which is readily available. In the West, we’ve become conditioned to eat what advertisers and supermarkets tell us to eat. We don’t have to try very hard to get food. High-fat, high-sugar takeaways and ready meals are easy to find.”

Is organic food the best choice?

There’s also a misconception that in order to lose weight, you have to buy organic – which, admittedly, can be pretty pricey. “Actually, there’s no evidence to suggest that organic produce is more effective than non-organic in weight loss,” says Dr Sally Norton.

So the trick is to buy ordinary fresh fruit and vegetables at a good price – which is now easier than ever, thanks in part to the rise of budget supermarkets such as Aldi and Lidl.

Dr Norton has one word of warning for shoppers, though: “Supermarkets now admit that only one-third of their special offers are for healthy foods This needs to change. But in the meantime, people need to resist the lure of the towering two-for-one doughnut displays in the doorways, and search out the healthier bargains elsewhere in the store.”

Why aren’t people motivated?

OK, we’ve established that you don’t have to spend a fortune in order to eat healthily. So why isn’t everyone doing it? “Education and motivation are key – and yes, cost can play a part in that,” says Yvonne Green. “Many of my obesity clients don’t have basic nutritional knowledge when I first meet them. They may also be unaware of the psychological factors that are influencing their behaviours.

“Obviously, they get this knowledge through coming to see me – as they would if they joined a slimming club. But these things do cost money. Also, if many of the people around you are obese, it can seem like the norm. Changing your habits and behaviour is going to be harder in that environment.”

Jacqui Cleaver, managing director at New You Boot Camp, agrees: “From speaking to prospective clients, I’ve learned that when money is tight, taking care of your health is often considered a luxury. You have to feel motivated to change, and to see it as a priority.

“But obesity is heavily linked to stress. When people live in a deprived area, life can be a struggle on a daily basis. Comfort eating becomes a way of coping. Self-sabotage due to poor eating is rife when there are stress triggers all around you. To get fit and lose weight, you need a certain amount of self-belief and determination. And when life is tough, these can be difficult to find.”

Is exercise easier when you’re rich?

Aside from healthy eating, regular exercise is important for sustained weight loss. And while it costs nothing to go for a walk or play football in the park, the fact remains that many fitness activities do involve spending money – whether it’s on an expensive gym membership or simply splashing out on a pair of cheap trainers – which limits the options for those on a low income.

And, as Dr Sally Norton points out, wider issues such as the selling-off of school playing fields makes it harder for kids in particular to join in sports.

Let’s not pretend obesity is just a problem for the less well-off, though. Money – or lack of it – is only one factor in a long list of issues that affect our weight and overall health. And it doesn’t just come down to the individual. The government, medical professionals and society in general all have a role to play in ensuring that obesity doesn’t become the norm for rich and poor alike.

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