Saturday, November 25, 2006

Eating: The new smoking?
Nov. 24, 2006

Underlining that truth really is stranger than fiction, the human species appears to be destined to eat itself to death. Could Jules Verne ever have imagined a more fantastical end? But here we are, growing fatter with each passing year and taking our children down with us into poor health, early death and depression.
How has this happened? It’s as easy as too many calories and not enough activity, and as complex as globalization, public policy, urban planning and genetics. But whatever the reasons, the problems they’ve created are now abundantly clear, and frightening enough as public-health issues to warrant a response every bit as dramatic as we eventually mustered against smoking.
This much we know: Overweight and obese people get sick more often and die sooner. They’re also more likely to raise kids who are overweight and obese themselves. Much like smoking, kids who grow up with parents whose eating habits and activity levels make them obese are at higher risk of falling into the same patterns themselves. Given the dramatic rise in overweight/obesity rates this past decade, you can see where a trend like that will take us.
A federal report last year on Canadians’ growing weight problems noted that there’s not only more of us putting on weight every year, but fewer of us taking it off.
Obesity Epidemic in Canada found that over a 10-year period, a third of Canadians who started out at “normal” weights eventually moved into the “overweight” category. A quarter of those who had been classified as overweight shifted into the “obese” category. Meanwhile, only 10 per cent of those who started out overweight lost enough weight to move into the “normal” group.
As the report points out, the direct and indirect costs of all that weight gain are tremendous. As a proportion of total health-care expenditure, the current toll of obesity is comparable to where tobacco was 15 years ago: approximately 2.5 per cent. Almost seven million Canadians are overweight, and another 4.5 million are obese.
Just like tobacco, there’s nowhere for costs to go but up. The disease risks increase over time. Smoking-related disease now accounts for nine per cent of our health spending, and obesity costs could very well follow suit.
Like all lifestyle-related problems, we are loathe to acknowledge that it’s us who will have to do something about it. This week, for instance, more than eight in 10 Canadians polled by Ipsos-Reid agreed that doctors should be required by law to tell parents if their child is too fat, as if the blame for our kids growing fat rests with the family GP for holding out on us.
A frank conversation with your doctor is a great start, of course. But getting at the deep roots of this worrying issue will take considerably more effort than that. And it’s all about tough personal choices.
I’m no expert in obesity, but it seems to me that we’ve lost our relationship with food. Once, we were animals, lucky to find enough to eat, let alone too much. We burned a lot of calories just looking for food, and gauged our portion sizes carefully to avoid scarcity.
But we’re clever creatures, and soon figured out how to ensure food was always close at hand. Along the way, we imbued it with emotional resonance, and made it the centrepiece of every major event of our lives. We eat when we’re happy and equally when we’re sad, and for every emotional occasion in between. Hunger - once the only reason for eating - is rapidly losing relevance in these overfed times.
The proliferation of “fast food” has taken us to new levels in the disconnect. An entire industry has developed to provide us with instant access to food around the clock. Driving into any community in the country starts with running a gauntlet of fast-food restaurants on the edge of town. Many pack more calories into a single burger than our ancestors consumed in an entire day.
Fortunately, we’ve been here before. We once smoked the way we now eat, and for similar fuzzy reasons. We know how to effect change, even in the face of widespread public resistance. The strategies we’ll need are neither easy nor short-term, and in the case of obesity will require going up against Big Food as aggressively as was done with the tobacco industry. But if it’s that or be remembered by future historians as a nation destroyed by its eating habits, no effort should be spared.
What can’t be allowed to happen is the normalization of obesity. That’s already happening in U.S. television commercials, which increasingly feature overweight and obese actors. Fashion’s equally absurd focus on the mega-thin also must go, but we have to resist being lulled into any comforting assertion that overweight is the new “just right.”
As any number of disease trends and health indicators make abundantly clear, it isn’t.


Susan Jones said...

interesting post!
thought provking.

Moby Dick said...

Obese Children are becoming an epidemic! Where are the parents?