Fighting Fat World (8/29/11)
Getting Bigger Faster
The world is getting fatter fast. Under present trends half of Americans will be obese in 2030, and 40% of Britons. According to an excellent series of articles in the Lancet (available free at the Lancet website) the cost to the US economy will be at least $66 billion more a year.
What is now reversing this public epidemic? Not much.
So are we doomed to a diabetic population where we watch people lose their limbs, leave their jobs due to heart disease, and die slowly on dialysis machines?
What Needs to be Done
The many authors of the Lancet articles have come to the consensual conclusion that though the problem is complex, we need to act right now:
1. Recognize that obesity is an international public health problem, not an individual one. Individual action hasn’t worked – and for good reasons. Even past surgeon general David Kessler has pointed out the brain circuitry involved in obesity is very similar to that of addictive drugs. People frequently have less ability to control their weight than they prefer to think.
2. Cheap, easy to eat, highly processed obesogenic food is sweeping the world through aggressive and successful marketing. Without some form of government intervention this will not change. The authors suggest taxing junk food.
Though junk food taxes might give a small fillup to our vast national deficit, it will also hurt the poor, who survive on cheap food. Getting rid of subsidized obesogenic food would help. Federal agricultural subsidies to agribusiness are killing us financially already. Congressmen please note – cutting agricultural subsidies will not raise taxes.
3. Emphasize kids. Kids are not fully responsible.
As the authors put it, “They are not mature, they do not have nutritional knowledge, are unable to perceive the risks of their behaviour, and their choices are readily affected by marketing.”
At present, 35% of American children are considered overweight – the highest rate in the world, with incidence doubling over twenty years. Sitting in front of their TVs watching thousands of ads for supersweet foods, kids are literally sitting ducks. Many are already so used to enormous loads of sugar that they shun normal whole foods.
4. Give environmental changes a chance. Green spaces help a lot. If people have safe places to walk around, they walk. The differences in British survival statistics between the richest and the poorest halved when the poor had lots of parks and greensward to move in – and visit neighbors. When the Soviet Union cut its economic support to Cuba in the early nineties – particularly oil – provincial mortality statistics went down a fifth. People get healthier with autotransport.
5. All of one’s life basic activities matter for weight – anything that helps our body naturally regenerate. Short shrift sleep, particularly less than 6.5 hours a night, and you get a heavier population – and a more tired, duller one as well.
6. The rise of the internet is fueling lack of physical activity and other forms of active, necessary rest. Kids text rather than walk over to speak face to face to friends; they wake through the night to exchange messages.
Stopping internet use, except at night? That’s like trying to stop the waves of the sea. But mobile computing means that people can be mobile. All the telecommunications and entertainment media companies must recognize that they serve society, and should emphasize ways to keep people moving – even when they’re plugged in.
Looming Food Fights
Will changing people’s ways of eating and moving prove easy? If the past is a guide, we are in for one helluva of a fight.
Much will depend on the response of the worldwide food industry. Much like the tobacco industry, they often describe how they are “moving with the times”, helping to “improve” their products through “public private partnerships.” In other words, they prefer spin to making any changes at all.
So this will be a political battle. People don’t want to give up their junk food, and the food industry is very happy to sell it to them – aided by giant government agricultural subsidies.
Ending agricultural subsidies will be a start – but only a start.
Political will to regulate junk food is presently lacking. Public action will then prove necessary.
Companies don’t like negative publicity, but they really dislike boycotts. People don’t want their children to grow up sick. Boycotts of corporoations mean lower profits – immediately. And that’s really bad for stock market prices.
So that will become one weapon in the future food wars. And for once the auguries are good.
Critics may deride how far they’ve actually gone, but McDonald’s has modified their happy meal – and they serve 7% of all American meals.
Others may follow suit. Food manufacturers can make high profits with healthy meals as well as unhealthy ones – as the success of Whole Foods and other demonstrates.
In a country which already has the best government money can buy, voting with your wallet can work just as efficiently – at the grocery.
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