The Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the US National Academy of Sciences, is launching an awareness and action campaign on obesity called the Weight of the Nation (http://www.iom.edu/About-IOM/Leadership-Staff/Boards/Food-and-Nutrition-Board/TWOTN.aspx). The following page contains share-able fact sheets and info graphics: http://theweightofthenation.hbo.com/digital-assets/
According to the research, much of the obesity epidemic is laid in childhood. Most people’s knee-jerk reaction is to simply blame the parents, and do nothing at all about the unnecessary life-long suffering inflicted by poor childhood nutrition. According to the Institute of Medicine, of the 10 states with the highest obesity levels, nine are among the poorest states in the US. Junk foods are cheap and easy,. Not only to buy, but for corporations to make. You use the cheapest ingredients, extensively use preservatives to lengthen the product’s shelf life, and add substances that are essentially addictive because they are geared to natural human tastes that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to enhance our survival in times of scarcity. Blaming parents and doing nothing entrenches health inequalities between kids whose parents have the education, interest and resources to learn about and take action on information about healthy foods, and those who don’t.
Almost half of kids’ calories come from food eaten at school. According to the Institute of Medicine, the availability of junk foods in schools is a significant factor in the rise of obesity in American teens. There is no US federal law mandating physical education in schools. Portion sizes of snack foods have ballooned since 1983, and so have people. The Institute of Medicine also documents the skyrocketing increases in portion sizes of children’s food.
Although people may be aware that junk foods are fattening and that exercise is necessary, most people are completely unaware of the full extent. For example, how many people know that it would take a 150 pound adult over an hour of running at 5 miles per hour to burn off a single average serving of French fries?
What’s missing from the info graphics?
- The cost of obesity-related disease
- The cost, in billions, of food industry advertising
- The amount, in billions, of food industry profits
Public health lawyer Michele Simon is not going to be watching the Weight of the Nation series when it appears on HBO on May 14 and 15. Simon is the author of Appetite for Profit: How the food industry undermines our health and how to fight back. She finds that the series is too focussed on the individual obese person, who is already publicly vilified and discriminated against, rather than on the food industry’s role in creating and maintain obesity. After all, when did people started becoming obese? Did they suddenly and mysteriously lose willpower just when increasingly processed unhealthy foods were beginning to be created and heavily marketed? Here is Simon’s blog: http://www.appetiteforprofit.com/
I also believe the food industry should be more heavily regulated to ensure that no carcinogens are used in food products, and that junk foods should come with warning labels like cigarette packages. Why do I think this is necessary? Almost every day, my child is plied with junk food by well-meaning people who consider it a treat, almost a childhood rite of passage. Other kids bring it to school and give it to her. Her after-school program’s “cooking” time is about making some god-awful confection. My choice is to tell the staff she can’t have it, and to let her watch all the other kids eat it and feel deprived, or to just let it go. I let it go because I don’t want to create some mystique around the junk as a forbidden food that every other kid can have and she can’t. Her dad and grandmother see nothing wrong with frequent visits to McDonald’s. They know I don’t like it, and their response is to try to hide it from me. However, I can tell because all of a sudden, we have a new useless plastic toy about the place that came from a Happy Meal.
I grew up in a household in which I was fed on formula on a schedule as a baby. Both the formula available in the 60s and feeding babies on a schedule rather than when they are hungry have both been shown to contribute to obesity later in life. Later, I was admonished to eat everything on my plate, whether I was hungry or not. I was told that eating everything on my plate would make me strong and healthy. I was told I had a moral obligation to eat everything on my plate because there were starving children in Biafra. I didn’t know where Biafra was (it’s now a part of Nigeria), or how my eating would make a difference to the starving children there. Nevertheless, I was a good girl and learned to override my body’s natural hunger and satiety signals. I learned to eat when food was there. Unfortunately, in our society of overabundance, food is always there.
Others also have developed unhealthy relationships with food based on childhood experiences. Dr. Nick Yphantides , author of My Big, Fat Greek Diet, was told to eat everything on his plate because not to do so was an insult to his father who earned the money to buy the food, and to his mother who cooked it. I think mothers in certain cultures and places also ply their kids with food because there really is a belief that it will make them strong and healthy. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out for Dr. Nick. He gained over 400 pounds.
We need a culture change. Whereas many of our parents and grandparents grew up in a culture of scarcity, for those of us who are middle class or well-off in industrialized countries, we need to learn how to ensure our own abundance doesn’t kill us. For those living on low incomes in industrialized countries, particularly those with little or no food security, the current outlook is grim. When you are living on what is given away at food banks or soup kitchens, or the cheapest things in the grocery store that can fill you up and keep you full, you are unlikely to have a balanced diet. I remember living on a low income and eating primarily pasta. When your food budget is a couple of dollars a week, you learn to spend it on very high calorie foods that will keep you full for the longest period of time. Vegetables don’t cut it.
There are other modern practices that contribute to obesity, apart from the highly processed unhealthy foods that are ubiquitous. Whereas most of our ancestors went to bed shortly after sundown and rose at dawn, our bodies are off track. Lack of sufficient sleep contributes to obesity. So does shift work. So can anxiety. There is an awful lot to tackle, and few of us can do it alone. I am managing to lose weight now, but during periods of high anxiety and low income, this was not possible. We need to work together as a society to fight the obesity problem that is making so many of us sick. We should not try to do this by attacking obese people, or by pretending it’s all a matter of individual willpower, but by together working towards healthy environments in which everyone has access to healthy foods, healthy work schedules, and everyone feels safe walking, running or playing in their own neighbourhoods.