There is plenty of scientific evidence to show that a healthy, balanced diet in combination with regular exercise lays a good foundation for a long and healthy life. If people adhere to the recommendations regarding calorie intake and nutritional guidelines, there should actually be fewer weight problems in the industrialized nations as well as less chronic disease caused by the wrong nutrition. But in reality, the picture is very different: Currently, over 50% of adults in Germany are overweight, 20% are obese, and 7% suffer from diabetes.
Cardiovascular disease is now the most frequent cause of death in Germany and the length of time that the increasingly old population remains chronically ill – or in need of care – is also extending. An examination of the causes shows that although people often know better, their eating habits are not in keeping with recommendations made by nutrition experts. The main problem with our diet is that it contains too many calories, too much fat, and too many simple carbohydrates.
In the so-called developed industrial nations, people are increasingly spending less time cooking for themselves – meals in restaurants, especially fast-food restaurants, are replacing more and more meals at home. As we keep shifting toward fast food and ready-made meals, we have less control over the quality and quantity of ingredients. Food and meals are losing the allotted space in daily routines. People eat if they see something tasty which they think will make them full. It’s not uncommon for people to lose track of what they have eaten over the course of a day and how much extra snacking they did.
Another cause for the rise in overweight people and chronic disease lies in the fact that the role of sport and exercise in improving health is waning in significance. The statistics on the amount of exercise recommended to prevent chronic, degenerative disease show that only 46% of men between 18 and 29 in what is now former West Germany and as little as 30% of the same aged men in former East Germany get the recommended exercise. Once they hit 30, the proportion falls to 15-20% in both east and west. These figures are extremely disappointing, not just by themselves but also from a salutogenetic perspective: There have been a number of wide-scale empirical studies in recent years, clearly pointing to the positive impact of “lifestyle intervention” (in the form of exercise and diet) on staying healthy and preventing chronic disease.
So the goal has to be to change the eating and exercise habits of the Germans on a broad scale. Sustainable, validated concepts are needed to optimize healthy lifestyle strategies to steer the population back on track, following the example of the M.O.B.I.L.I.S. program from Freiburg. But this would also need support from business, which needs to set an example and offer and promote healthy eating options and more exercise, even at work. There is already plenty of reliable data confirming that occupational health care schemes bring positive benefits to companies in the mid to long term.
Many Germans are quite aware that their diet could be better. This is reinforced by advertising attempting to tell consumers that deficits in their diet can be compensated for with dietary supplements, added minerals and vitamins, and trace elements. There is no doubt that it makes sense and is necessary from a medical point of view to treat proven dietary deficiencies (e.g., iron or vitamin D) with supplements, but sometimes the health claims that are made would not stand up to scientific scrutiny. What science can do, however, is use its medical and nutritional know-how, carry out reliable, controlled and randomized studies, and help sort the wheat from the chaff by expanding and aligning the range of useful and effective substances on offer.
The Steinbeis Transfer Center for Health Promotion and Metabolism Research has been looking at ways to optimize the actions taken to change lifestyles for health reasons through nutritional measures and exercise. Clinical, randomized studies are also being carried out on the effectiveness – or lack of effectiveness – of nutritional supplements and supplementary balanced diets.
Research currently focuses on:
Prof. Dr. med. Daniel König is director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Health Promotion and Metabolism Research at The Medical Center – University of Freiburg. One of the main functions of the center is to design and carry out randomized, controlled studies, investigating the association between foodstuff or specific nutrients and health related issues or the metabolic response of the human organism.
Prof. Dr. med. Daniel König
Steinbeis Transfer Center Health Promotion and Metabolism Research (Freiburg)