Who's To Blame For Obesity?
Despite being the subject of intense government scrutiny for several years, levels of obesity amongst the British population continue to rise. Figures show that an incredible 22%of British adults are obese, and 75% are overweight. Obesity is defined as having a body mass index of more than 30, and increases the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes and cancer. Worryingly, a government report due to be published this week says that the situation is expected is worsen, with a predicted 33% of adults and 20% of children becoming obese by 2010.
The booming diet and fitness industry indicates that people are aware of the problem and want to lose weight, but the problem, and our waistlines, continues to grow. The size and speedy acceleration of the 'obesity epidemic' suggests to many people that there must be causes other than simple overindulgence and laziness. In our "where there's blame there's a claim" culture the pointing fingers are searching for a guilty target.
The main recipient of this blame appears to be the food industry. Its detractors point out that supermarket giants and fast food chains have contributed to the expansion of our waistlines by making unhealthy food easily available, that fresh healthy food is undercut in price by cheap salt-encrusted ready meals, and that cleverly constructed junk food advertisements cynically target children.
These accusations are true to some extent. The British population has grown fatter in the 30 years that large multi-national corporations have dominated the food industry. Some argue that in their search for greater profit margins food manufacturers have ignored their responsibility to the health of the consumer.
But in reality, the food industry is simply giving consumers what they want; we are supplied with what we demand. And by demanding a tasty chocolate bar or a delicious pizza we are, unfortunately, demanding products with high sugar and fat contents that are bad for our health.
In the battle against obesity there appears to be a lack of emphasis on an individual's personal responsibility to eat well and stay healthy. The vast majority of adults know that the best way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more. The new food labelling scheme in supermarkets is a welcome initiative because it encourages the consumer to make informed choices over what they eat. Not knowing what foods are high in fats and sugars is no longer an excuse. But do we really need anyone to tell us that crisps and sweets are bad for us? We eat them because they taste nice, and will continue to do so no matter how many campaigns the government launches.
While adults do not and should not expect a nanny state monitoring their food intake, greater emphasis should be placed on the messages children receive about diet and nutrition. There is something rather sinister about eye-catching television ads that have been put together by intelligent adults to convince children to eat foods that are really quite bad for them. Children do not have the same access to information resources adults and so cannot make informed choices about what they eat; they are also much more susceptible to marketing campaigns. Thanks to pressure from health and consumer lobby groups, the independent regulator for the British communications industry, Ofcom, is consulting on whether to introduce a 9pm watershed for junk food advertisements. This is a positive step towards tackling childhood obesity but can only be effective if parents enforce healthy eating within the family. The call for a ban on junk food advertising is a part of the proposed Children's Food Bill which also calls for teaching cookery, nutrition and practical food skills in schools, healthier school meals and a ban on vending machines in schools.
However, these initiatives will only reduce childhood and eventually adult obesity if individuals take responsibility for their choices. All the education and guidance in the world will not prevent people from getting fat if they choose to live on a diet of takeaways and confectionary. While fast-food chains such as McDonald's have been criticised for urging customers to 'super-size' their meal, no one is being forced to double their portion sizes. People make personal choices about what they eat, just as they make choices over whether or not to smoke, to drink alcohol and to take drugs. We human beings enjoy our vices, and always will do. What we have to learn to do is enjoy them in moderation, and not be surprised or look for someone to blame when overindulgence destroys our health.
While the food industry has only recently made positive steps towards tackling obesity, it is not guilty of engineering this epidemic. Our sedentary lifestyles and poor 'convenient' diets are the real culprits. The majority of families in Britain now drive to work or school, and even household tasks are a lot less strenuous thanks to modern appliances. The simple fact is that we eat more processed foods and do less physical activity than we did 30 years ago. And with the wealth of information provided by the government, the media and the diet industry on how to get active and stay healthy, we have no excuses for not using that information for our benefit.
If we as a nation want to get thinner and increase our life expectancy and general well-being, we must do what we have always known we should do; eat well, eat less, and exercise regularly. Above all, we must stop looking for someone else to take responsibility for our own lack of discipline.