wading into the fat debate

Human societies around the world have a number of health problems. In 2015, one of our most pressing difficulties is maintaining our bodies at a size where they can function efficiently. Why is this happening? What is a sensible response? And does it really matter?

Why is this happening?

In simple terms, we’re eating too much of illogical yet desirable types of food, and we’re not moving in the ways that best benefit our structure.

Our free markets have found profitable ways to encourage us to eat more than we need, and to develop nutritionally insignificant foods that we crave. It’s easy to suggest we simply exercise self-control and common sense, but more difficult in the real world to follow such basic advice. We’re animals above all, and social animals at that. Our urge to eat is strong and can override other factors, and our joy in sharing food with others makes us successful pack animals.

Our living areas are designed to make places accessible by the default modes of transport – cars, buses, trains. This is progress. But we need to factor in how to get the daily minimum movement that our bodies require. I’ve never lived in a place that I can’t navigate on foot or by bike, and my minimum walk to work has always been half an hour – but most people have to use other forms of transport and don’t have a walking or biking option within their day. This is where the sometimes costly modern gym membership attempts to enter people’s lives, making exercise a luxury you pay for and work at, rather than a natural part of life itself.

What is a sensible response?

A sensible response is to encourage our governments to take wider action to help us make our lives as healthy as possible: sugar tax, basic food education in schools, clearly labelled foods, easily accessible walk and cycle ways. There needs to be more shaming of brands who market clearly unsuitable items for human consumption like the Costa Christmas drink that contains four times the daily advised limit of sugar – in one drink!

Does it really matter?

The UK is spending an estimated £47 billion a year on obesity related issues. Money alone is not just the issue, quality of life is obviously seriously affected. The USA needs to be especially alert to this issue, given that a huge market has been created around illogical treatments for obesity.

But most importantly of all, what matters within all this are the individuals. We can acknowledge there is a global problem that needs to be tackled, but the tendency to isolate or judge individuals based on their weight is simply illogical.

Beyond simple eating and basic exercise that may be superficially viewed as ‘choice’, there are myriad other factors that influence people’s weight. If you were breastfed in the first six months of your life, you are less likely to be obese in later life. If your mother or your grandmother faced food shortages at some point in their lives, you are more likely to be obese. Even so-called diet foods may be doing more to harm people than help them.

We can only just begin to understand and measure the effects that genetics, epigenetics and environment all have on our bodies. We need to stop obsessing about the weight of individuals and start positive, educational change to make a generally more healthy and informed society.