Lazy, Greedy Gluttons? Is obesity really such an individual problem?

It is no secret that the world is getting fatter. Lazy, greedy gluttons! If only you would just put down the burger, eat a banana and go for a jog. Right? Is it really that simple? I mean Weight Watchers tells us it’s all about point scoring and will power and the occasional leaflet from the NHS insists it’s a matter of your 5-a-day, so what is wrong with us? Why are there now 1.5 billion adults and 43 million children overweight or obese worldwide, rising by a staggering 214% since the 1950s? Yes, some of it lies in self-control. We are not stupid, we all know a stick of celery is healthier than a stick of Twix. But since this is such a widespread phenomenon, I don’t think it all lies in the choices we make. Is it perhaps also genetic? I find it hard to believe that the rate of evolution is so rapid that in a generation or two a third of Americans and Brits and 24% of all Mexicans have now developed the obesity gene, with around another third being at least overweight. So if it is not entirely us or our DNA, then what on earth is going on? Well, the fact that the rate of childhood obesity in Mexican kids is highly correlated with their proximity to the US border should serve a clue.

In reality, the collective changes in our chubbiness are but a normal response to an abnormal environment. We increasingly live in what are termed obesogenic environmentsof over-supply and encouraged over-consumption by food companies who have to entice us to ‘eat more’ for their own survival in a world of dog eat dog profit-seeking corporate competition. It is well established that our busy lives demand a more efficient and convenient world. This has meant a huge reduction in physical activity with a simultaneous increase in (empty) caloric intake of highly processed foods, high in salt, sugars and fats. These have longer shelf lives for longer selling opportunities. They are also more convenient as cooking is an activity now competing for time directly with TV watching, sports spectating, video game playing and even reading, and lets face it, cooking or growing food is not likely to win here. All of this contributes to the pounds spent on gadgets and the pounds adding to waist lines.

In the mean time, our couch-potato junk-food filled lifestyles have led to negative health effects such as diabetes, heart disease and food related cancers. All of them are rapidly on the rise and are the biggest killers in advanced and developing countries. Yet, the businesses that help shape our eat-more-do-less environments are not penalised for this by what should be negative red figures on their balance sheets. Instead, these problems show up in public budget deficits as governments struggle to keep up.

Proof that environments matter comes from a recent study of a public health intervention in Hawaii where more healthy food was made available in-stores situated in low income areas known to have obesity problems. Point of sale promotions for healthier eating were placed and passing children and their care-givers were given extra education about what good food is and a healthier way to eat. The study lasted almost a year and had significant impact on the eating behaviour and habits of the children and their parents. In other words, changing the environment led to positive behaviour change. Similarly, Michael Pollan, in his 2008 book “In Defense of Food”, reported a 1982 Australian experiment that involved a group of native Aboriginal people suffering from severe deleterious health effects due to their residence in urban spaces, partaking in a Western lifestyle and consuming a Western diet. They were asked to move back to the bush for seven weeks and fend for themselves in a traditional manner. The results were incredible, ushering in large weight loss and rapid reversal of many symptoms of diabetes and other diet linked afflictions. Now this is not to say that we should go back to hunter gathering, but it does demonstrate that through changing our food environment, we can reverse the ills that beset us.

These observations are generally accepted in the research community, but politics and powerful corporate interests get in the way of effective public solutions. The current efforts are limited to labeling to remind you to eat your 5 a day and government messages to start doing more exercise. As Marion Nestle in her book and blog Food Politics explains, obesity is a social problem facilitated by environments pushing us to ‘eat more’, but the solution is being individualised. We are all blamed for our own greed and lack of self-control. Yet the companies encouraging us to indulge are the same ones telling us to lose weight. In the US, for instance, Jenny Craig, a leading Weight Watchers equivalent, is owned by Nestle, the largest $125 billion/year food and beverage company in the world with Haagen Dazs, Kit Kat and Yorkie among its 6,000 brands.

Of course education and personal choice has a role to play and we should all take some responsibility, but the messages out there are very confusing. There is no possibility that government health education budgets can ever compete with giant global advertising budgets. The system is completely Out of Balance. In 2004, for instance, the US government spent $9.55 million on healthy eating promotions, whilst in the same year the food and beverage industry spent a whopping $11.26 billion on advertising and marketing. If you really think that all the choices you make are your own and you are impenetrable to marketing and advertising messages, just think that if advertising did not work, there is no way that companies that are seeking profit (and usually only profit) would be spending more than the GDP of the 97 poorest countries of the world and roughly the same as the GDP of Iceland on it! As Raj Patel, the author of the hugely inspiring bookStuffed and Starved concludes, given the megabucks involved in food and drink advertising, as you wonder through food isles and browse the menus of fast food joints, thoughts of ‘I like that’ or ‘I want it’ should rouse a bout of self-reflection and suspicion as to whether or not that is really your taste. Not serve as what advertisers hope it does – a direct prelude to a purchase. Taking back your own food and taste sovereignty on an individual level is part of the battle to reclaim food policy for health and not for profit. For if demand for junk falls, this is one way that markets and governments have to react.

Food policy should also be more aligned with evidence and the views of physical and mental health professionals. This means tackling the root of the problem – our corporate food system. In their 2004 book Food Wars: The Global Battle for Mouths, Minds, and Markets Tim Lang and Michael Heasman conclude “Diet is one of the most alterable factors in human health, but despite strong evidence for intervention, public policy has only implemented lesser measures such as labeling and health education while the supply chain remains legitimized to produce ingredients of heart disease, cancer, obesity and their diet-related degenerative diseases”. Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution is one crusade against the bulge tackling this head on, first at home in the UK and now in the States. He is trying to address the problem of the supply chain in schools, urging teachers, parents and politicians to all stand up and demand good, nutritious meals for their kids. Yet, even with such a seemingly common-sensical issue as good food in schools, our friends in the echelons of power across the Atlantic have done everything in their might to stop him not only entering schools, but even talking to students about their current school meals, as we saw in this week’s episode on Channel 4. As Jamie said, it is preposterous that in the ‘land of the free’, he is physically blocked from engaging with people and effectively gagged from even raising the issue of bad school food. If this is the sort of resistance we face in the so-called ‘developed’ and ‘democratic’ nations, what chance do people have facing the same globalised problems in nations of lesser fortunes.  If it is us who are meant to signify ‘progress’ and inspire emulation, what kind of an example are we setting?

For those of us who do want to make a more consciously healthy and ethical choice about food, the obesogenic environment leaves us few options for private rebellious action. As Jane Wilkinson, Sustainability Adviser at Forum for the Future pointed out to me, we are all social creatures. Food and the act of eating is one of the most social activities we engage in and as such, if you are trying to be healthy and conscientious as an individual you face an uphill struggle. You try to be careful of your choices when shopping for yourself, but when you meet your friends down the pub you have no idea where the ingredients have come from for your meal or what is really in it. This is why Forum for the Future engages with companies in key sectors like food and as we speak they are working with the whole Dairy industry. They help companies make sustainability central to a profitable business strategy. Food is an area they see as critical to this and look at food retailers as having the power to drive change through their supply chain and to influence the behaviour of millions of customers.

So, I guess what I am saying is that although we have seemed to be heading down a slippery slope of rising obesity and associated diseases, in the face of lacking government policy to tackle the problem at the root there are many activists, academics, crusading chefs and non-profit organisations already trying to do just that. There are baby steps we can all make individually that will pressure for change those that make decisions that shape our world. Step one – educate yourself, your friends and family about the problem, for as Joel Salatin, a radical activist farmer from Virginia who refuses to sell produce from his farm outside his farm’s “food-shed” said in an interview with Mother Jones, from not knowing to not caring is not a huge leap. So follow the likes of JamieMarion and Raj and start caring.

Do you know of any initiatives that are being taken to increase awareness about healthy nutrition? Leave a reply below.

Ioulia Fenton leads the food and agriculture research stream at the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.


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