Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Fat Zombies, Pleistocene Tastes, Autophilia and the "Obesity Epidemic"

Canadians are fat and getting fatter: so say surveys up to and including the series of papers last August in Health Reports. By actual measurement, nearly a quarter of us (adults) are obese. So what? Obesity is clearly hazardous to health, but reports that 60% of us are "obese or overweight" border on fear-mongering. A body mass index (BMI) over 25 is not a death sentence, and obesity will not bankrupt the healthcare system. The trends, though, are worrying. So will we rebuild cities - and, especially, suburbs - to be more pedestrian-friendly, suppressing auto-induced urban sprawl? Will we take on the fast-food industry as we did tobacco? Obesity is not destiny; Canada could do better.

We Have Met the Enemy, and He Is Us (Sort Of) - Pogo
Does an effective response to obesity include putting MacDonald's and Coca-Cola out of business? Good luck! But if not … ? If sales of calorie-rich, nutrient-poor foods cannot be trimmed back, what hope is there for a lighter population? The industry can claim that it is simply responding to "consumer demand" - which on one level is true. Sellers of tobacco, pornography and illegal drugs could make the same claim (and some have). But influencing the food industry issue is much tougher than trying to suppress a noxious and widely unpopular industry. Promoting healthy eating requires some complex fine-tuning of a large industry with a high level of public support, in ways that will certainly restrict profit opportunities. Not surprisingly, our politicians have little stomach for this.

Effective tobacco control backs up aggressive anti-smoking messages with a combination of heavy taxation, restrictions on industry promotion and legal prohibition of smoking in public spaces. Left on their own, the health promoters would be massively outgunned; they wouldn't stand a chance. Are any of these seriously contemplated for the food industry?

Efforts to keep soft-drink and fast-food promotion out of schools are commendable, and a lot more could be done through the schools - starting very early - to promote both healthy eating and more exercise. (A national daycare program could have provided an effective vehicle.) But that will require making greater fitness a serious public priority, that is, with organization, regulation and money. Like planning and re-building our urban environments, it is a large and long-term commitment. Is anyone really serious about this? Or should we just settle for preaching at the fatties?

[for the full article click on the title]

Dr. Robert Evans, OC, a faculty member of the Department of Economics at the University of British Columbia, is one of the world's leading health economists.