TCS Daily

Addiction Inflation

By Roger Bate - November 26, 2003 12:00 AM

Every year more American and European children are classified as obese or overweight. While the classifications may be misleading -- not least because some overweight people are actually healthier than their skinny friends -- there is little doubt that the trend is upwards, or rather outwards. Sadly, the question this gives rise to is, most often, "who can we blame?"

Litigious trial lawyers are targeting fast food and fizzy drink purveyors and some in the media have joined them. But evidence is mixed that calorie intake has jumped drastically over the past few decades, and, even where a rise has occurred there is almost no evidence that fast food is to blame. But there is no doubt we are fatter, so what is the reason?


Most sensible people point to the rise of sedentary lifestyles over the past century. Fewer than five percent of western workers have what can be described as energy intensive jobs. Whereas 100 years ago it was closer to half of all people who had tiring jobs in farming and industry. People exercise more than ever but many do too little to use up their calorie intake. Perhaps recent proposed tax breaks on gym memberships in Britain, and existing tax breaks in US, will help. But it's unlikely.


Child obesity is increasing rapidly says Professor Philip James, chairman of the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF), an organization backed by the World Health Organization. Western children are warm, well-fed, well-dressed, well-supplied with pocket money and are driven everywhere; they no longer run errands or take delivery jobs to help out with the family finances.


One reason for this phenomenon is that western cities are perceived to be riskier places for children today than they were thirty years ago. Indeed, the impression of an increased risk in urban areas is much higher than the reality says John Adams, a Professor at University College, London. Considerable concern across Europe about child abuse has scared parents into driving their children to school, rather than making them walk, and not allowing them out because of the perceived increase in danger from strangers and road traffic. Furthermore, according to Adams, litigation-driven safety legislation in schools has lowered the number of energy-intensive activities that kids can partake in.


Alert parents can probably address most of these concerns. But there are other tangential social issues of which they may be wholly ignorant that could be causing their children and themselves dietary problems.

Medicalising Gluttony and Obesity?

An interesting phenomenon creeping into western culture is the medicalisation of what are traditionally thought of as social habits and behaviors. In particular growing numbers of people are claiming they are addicted to all forms of lifestyle choices, such as sex, drugs, alcohol and of course, food.


But why has this happened? Some point to a perceived reduction in the primacy of personal responsibility in western society. According to Kent University sociologist, Frank Furedi, the notion of personal guilt -- which underpins the concept of bad behavior -- today exists largely in caricature. For Ferudi, the result has been for westerners to re-classify behaviors once regarded as sins as symptoms of regrettable psychological diseases:


"Actions that were once denounced as a sin are no longer interpreted through the vocabulary of morality but are diagnosed through the language of therapy."


Hence the sin of gluttony has become a behavioral problem that requires treatment rather than punishment; in other words, it is an addiction.


Gluttons no longer gorge themselves; they are simply suffering from one of a variety of eating disorders. Furedi says that the food-addiction industry -- those media-friendly purveyors of scares and cures -- considers gluttony is a physical disease characterized by obsession with food, obsession with weight and loss of control over the amount eaten. These compulsions are represented as the outcome of a physiological or biochemical condition of the body, which creates cravings for complex carbohydrates.


Some writers, notably many British feminists, go even further. Charlotte Cooper, author of "Fat and Proud: The Politics of Size" (The Woman's Press, 1998), believes that people are fat because genetic heritage determines our metabolic rate, and the problem is society forces people to diet. "I question our ability to choose our body shapes" writes Cooper. Acceptance of one's genetic heritage then becomes a great deal easier if one ignores the cultural call to diet. I suppose at least Cooper is after acceptance for obese people, rather than the constant no-cure addiction imagery, discussed by Furedi.


As a Brit living in America I perceive a greater sense of personal responsibility in America than I saw in Britain. It is here that the fight against the addiction inflation must be waged, and it can't start too soon. Addiction inflation allows people to worry about being overweight, whilst blaming other people for their obesity. While it may be ok to be overweight, it's not ok to blame everyone else if you're concerned about it.


Dr Bate is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a Director of Health Advocacy Group Africa Fighting Malaria.


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