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By Lesley Roberts
THE consultant surgeon is in charge of Britain’s busiest obesity unit and has now agreed to let cameras in for a new hard-hitting documentary series
CONSULTANT surgeon Peter Small has a big problem with our huge appetite.
He is the specialist in charge of Britain’s busiest obesity unit – where 700 weight-loss operations are carried out every year – but he’s determined to talk himself out of a job.
Peter is convinced that if we don’t get real about our eating, we’re all going to die about 10 years before our time.
That’s why he agreed to let cameras film his team in action for ITV’s hard-hitting documentary series Weight Loss Ward.
Peter said: “If you don’t deal with your weight before it becomes a problem, this is what you’re in for.
“This country really needs to get a grip on its weight problem. We have equivalent, if not higher, rates than Australia and we’re only beaten by America. Do we really want to be that big?
“The Government aren’t interested. They want us all to be slim from birth and stay that way – which is a very idealistic position.
“People are doing what they like until the age of 30 or 40, then realising they can’t move about very well and the clothes they’ve been buying are getting bigger all the time.
“I would love to think the message was getting through. I’d be delighted to be put out of work because that would mean I had achieved what I set out to do.
“But I don’t see it happening too quickly. And if it doesn’t happen, we’re all going to die young.”
Peter spoke out in the week that experts conceded they may have underestimated their prediction that half the UK population will be obese by 2050.
The National Obesity Forum said Britain was on track to surpass even the “doomsday scenario” set out in a 2007 report and are calling on campaigns similar to the “stop smoking” drive to tackle the problem.
For the 50 specialist staff at the obesity centre in Sunderland’s Royal Hospital, where Peter is the senior consultant surgeon, the obesity timebomb has already exploded.
They spend every day trying to help morbidly obese patients to lose weight and find strategies to keep the flab at bay, using tactics which include gastric bypass surgery or the fitting of gastric bands.
They see men and women who are twice the weight they should be, with a minimum BMI of 40 compared with a maximum healthy reading of 24.9.
Many of the patients who struggle through the doors on crutches or in wheelchairs are much heavier than that, some tipping the scales at more than 30st with a BMI of 80 or higher.
Around 30 per cent of his patients have diabetes related to their weight, more than 80 per cent are on anti-depressants, they all have mobility problems, many are infertile and some have cardiac failure, breathing problems and skin conditions.
Peter, 54, who is from Edinburgh, said: “You name a system of the body and I will tell you how being overweight will affect it.
“With diabetes, a significant proportion of our patients go into remission after surgery. We’re not allowed to say it’s a cure but they can stop their medication altogether.
“The bottom line is, if your BMI is 40 – and that’s when we’re allowed to start operating – you’re probably losing about 10 years of life.
“These are years you can get back by getting your weight down.”
In more than 10 years running the bariatric surgery ward, Peter has heard every single excuse from patients who fail to shed the requisite 10lb he asks to demonstrate their commitment to weight loss.
And he tolerates no nonsense, even from patients who claim to be desperate.
Peter said: “I’m being told all the time, ‘It’s in my genes, I’m big-boned, it’s my diabetes’.
“But I have an answer for all of these. For instance, you’re only big-boned because you’re heavy.
“I have to tell them, ‘Why should I operate on you if you can’t lose 10lb and someone else can? It’s not a lot of weight and, if you’re desperate, you’ll do it.’
“We treat it as a surrogate marker of a desire to change lifestyle because if you don’t change the way you’re living, you won’t lose weight.”
But Peter admits that he still wrestles with the reasons behind massive weight gain and believes it’s too simplistic to ignore underlying forces which affect the way we eat.
He said: “We have to try to understand why people eat what they do.
“Is it the way they have been brought up? Are they not used to certain foods? Is eating an emotional response?
“All that weight loss surgery will do is help you to lose weight. It won’t solve any other problems you had before the operation. We need psychologists involved in that.”