Friday, May 30, 2008

Fried Bread And Circuses

The thing about obesity and the news is that it has become a very simple story and as soon as story is simple, it is retold on a near daily basis. Obesity is a public health concern, both in the UK and worldwide. It greatly increases a person's risk of serious, debilitating and life-limiting diseases. In people with impairments, it can exacerbate symptoms like pain and breathing difficulties.

But it shouldn't worry us any more than smoking, for example; a greater proportion of people smoke than are clinically obese and both are said to take an average of ten years off your life expectancy. As with smokers, obese people frequently live most of their lives in excellent health and some will see old age (they might not see their feet, but that's another matter).

Bacchus knew how to enjoy himselfAnd yes, it is all a bit funny. Bodies are funny; wobbly bits and bony bits, floppily doppily and firm bits. Whilst it is possible to joke about breasts without insulting women, or to joke about impairments or disability paraphrenalia without insulting disabled people, we haven't fully mastered the same with weight. I don't suppose I have either; whenever I see the phrase Obesity TimebombI have visions of Mr Creosote exploding at the end of The Life of Brian*.

And yet this issue which is only slightly more serious than we're all different shapes and sizes and thank goodness none of us are going hungry has become a moral panic.

Some months ago, I was amazed to read Obesity 'as bad as climate risk' Then last week I read Obese blamed for the world's ills, in which obese people were held responsible for the aforementioned climate change.

The first is such fantastic nonsense it is hardly worth refuting. It is a bit like arguing that the ice caps aren't melting, but we're all getting so heavy that the land is sinking. Climate Change could mean that the surface of this planet becomes inhospitable to human life and our species (among others) dies out. End of civilisation, end of humanity. Failing that, things could get extraordinariy bad, billions of people could suffer and die and our natural environment is changing dramatically in a relatively short space of time. Climate Change is bad news - bad news we still have much control over - but really very bad news if ignored. There is absolutely no way in which that can compare to obesity, not in any terms.

Meanwhile, there are about 300 million obese people in the world, as opposed to 850 million hungry people - and by the way, not having enough food kills you much much quicker than eating too much. The most serious effects of obesity don't tend to strike until middle age; many thousands of children starve to death every year, to say nothing of those who survive wth the consequences of chronic malnutrition.

So hunger is a much bigger problem than obesity. In fact, I reckon I could write a very lengthy list of problems which are more significant globally, and a pretty long list of more pressing but far more awkward public health concerns here in the UK. In any case, obesity isn't even taking a dent in our life-expectancy, which continues to go up and up.

The second article really took the biscuit (if reluctantly; it claimed to be on a diet). The article asserts than an obese person needs one and fifth of average calorific consumption, that is a fifth extra food and thus contributing more greatly to the global food shortage. Well, fair enough, but in the UK we throw a third of all the food we buy away. And of course, obesity is a disease associated with poverty – poor people don't buy any food that's going to get wasted; middle class people do and are thus wasting far more than your fatty is eating. So maybe middle-class people (who fly more, drive much further with bigger cars and undoubtedly buy more useless stuff) are actually responsible for the world's ills. Try publishing that theory.

(I don't believe that, by the way, but it would make more sense).

But like I say, the story is simple. Despite the fact that obesity has increased massively in recent years, it is still understood to be a problem with individuals, lifestyle choices. Easily identifiable individuals, we imagine. And it's those old-fashioned sins of gluttony and sloth that are to blame, never anything more complicated than a lack of will-power.

Trickier to consider why this is happening, to look at class, gender and ethnicity, to consider what it is about our society, the built environment and social policy which has heralded this change. Even more tricky to consider whether the media's obsession with food, the attempts to make a morality out of what we put in our mouths might be contributing to this. A morality nothing to do with the human or environmental cost of our consumption, but how many calories is in a thing. Rather like sex, morality only applies to food where one's choices effect other people. However, rather like sex, if you declare something harmless and pleasurable to be naughty, people want it all the more. This isn't why people are obese, but what if it were part of a complex problem?

And if it were, would politicians and the media not be forced to talk about something that mattered a great deal more?

* I read about so many timebombs, it's a wonder we can hear ourselves think for the ticking. My favourite I saw recently suggested that Middle England is sitting astride an alcohol timebomb. Sitting astride it? Oh dear.


Diane J Standiford said...

Great post. My aunt, obese akk her adult life lived to be in 80's; a couin also obese all adult life lived healthy to 89. Genes.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the pensions crisis. Surely the government should be trying to encourage people to die younger -- so that there's enough money to pay for pensions & healthcare for the ones that do linger on?

And then again, there's the whole thing about us f***ing up the planet anyway: I'd probably have to drink and eat more in order for my personal 'timebombs' to catch up with the environmental one.

But then again, I'm a cynical so-and-so :-)

Ian Hewitt said...

What a wonderfully well thought out post. Well written and well considered, I have to agree with it almost word for word.

I think it is horrifying that children are allowed and even encouraged to overindulge in fast food diets. There should be an equal bar to entry on fast food outlets (and churches, too for that matter) as there is on off-licences and pubs.

What is even more terrifying is that particularly in the United States people still debate (well, the scientists don't, but the priests and politicians do) not the solutions to climate change but the validity of climate change.

I hear that the oil companies are now excited to be able to drill for oil more readily because of the receding ice caps.

Am I the only one choking on the irony?


The Goldfish said...

Thanks everyone,

Diane - Indeed. :-)

Jack - Absolutely, the pensions timebomb is another that comes up frequently enough. Yet as I say, where a really major health crisis exists, the life expectancy goes down; as it has in many African countries because of AIDS - I believe in Botswana it's something ridiculous like 37. But we're here worrying terribly about a thing when our life-expectancy is going up - and then worrying about how we're going to pay for all these older folk.

Ian - Thanks for your kind words.

The thing with the fast food companies and children is downright sinister. I read Morgan Spurlocks book that he wrote after the Supersize Me thing and whilst I felt rather uncomfortable about any suggestion that fast food chains are responsible for the choices that adults make, they really do go for the kids in the worst way.

Even I remember, as a child, convinced that MacDonalds would be a wonderful place with very tasty food, only to be sorely disappointed when I finally got to go there (lucky me!)

As for the Climate Change thing, it is absolutely baffling. And how religion becomes part of the equation I don't know - if God made the world, you'd think that would give us all a particularly special responsibility to look after the place.

Anonymous said...

Okay, but you must admit that it will be sort of hilarious if the human race does in fact gorge itself to death. How the other animals will laugh -- assuming we haven't eaten them all by then.

Problem is, a lot of our culturally favored habits of gluttony and sloth -- which tend to lead to a lot of ill health but, as you noted, not necessarily obesity -- are actually feeding the global warming problem. I have a long list of examples, but I know you already know them. Come visit me in America sometime, and I'll show you more. In fact, I'll probably even demonstrate some without even gaining a pound.

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