TCS Daily

Fat and Frightened

By Dale Atrens - November 21, 2003 12:00 AM

The Blair government is about to get tough on obesity in children. An emergency salt summit is being held. The hounds of hysteria are baying loudly. The Observer grimly observed "Official: fat epidemic will cut life expectancy." This catchy prediction is a theoretical calculation that flies in the face of easily observable facts. The increase in weight observed in the UK and other western nations is not correctly described as an 'epidemic'. It has been going on steadily for about 50 years as life expectancy has steadily increased.

As we are told daily, the main culprits in obesity are those who have debauched the appetites of our children with destructive high fat, high salt, high sugar food. As a result of the irresistible lure of fast food, children are eating themselves to death. The seriously silly notion of food addiction is being taken seriously. The science behind this hysteria merits examination.


First, during the recent period of growth in obesity in Western countries food intake decreased. In addition, we have cut back on fats, and saturated fats in particular. We have adopted what the authorities assure us is a healthier diet. Our reward is increased obesity. This insult is compounded by a rise in binge eating and anorexia nervosa. It appears that their solution to the conspicuous and tragic failures of their policies is more of the same bad medicine. They want to move beyond rhetoric that vilifies everyday pleasures, to banning them.


Second, World Health Organization data show that the countries with the fattest children are Uzbekistan, Kiribati, Algeria and Egypt. These are all countries in which fast, 'sinful' foods are rare or non-existent. The rate of childhood obesity in the UK is about half that in many countries that are not afflicted with such 'dissolute' eating habits. The rate of childhood obesity in the USA is the same as that in Burkina Faso, one of the very poorest countries in the world. Thus the main premise of the anti-obesity lobbying is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. Dietary indulgence is not to blame for the rise in obesity. The indictment of fats, sugar, salt and fast foods is based on folklore, not science.


Generations of nutrition research have done little to define what an ideal, healthy human diet is. Instead, this research has shown that the extraordinary diversity of humanity makes such a notion absurd. Rather than admit this simple truth, ideologically driven nutritionists insist that our very survival depends on making sweeping changes to our diet. It bears remembering, that a generation ago the same authorities were urging us to eat more meat, fat and dairy products. Then they were health foods. Now they are telling us that their last round of advice is killing us but that this time they've got it right.


Even ignoring the poor science on which the anti-obesity initiative is based, there remains another daunting and well documented problem. The history of community-based nutritional improvement programs has been one of unrelenting and costly failure. All around the world, governments have tried every trick in the book, recruited legions of experts, and spent billions along the way. There is not a single case where the intervention has been a solid success. In contrast, there are many instances where the intervention made things worse.


In the government's haste to save children from themselves, they will make them more fearful, more ignorant and more contemptuous of authority. Those who are overweight will suffer the consequences of being further stigmatized. Worse, the increased hysteria is likely to make them fatter, not thinner. There is sound evidence that chronic mild stress causes metabolic changes that promote weight gain. Our kids are fat and frightened. The government is about to make them fatter and more frightened.


Like any politician, it is important for Tony Blair to be seen as being tough on obesity. Unfortunately, the way he has chosen to hold the moral high ground necessitates being even tougher on logic and the truth. Science and common sense are among the first casualties in this new crusade.


Dale M. Atrens, Ph.D. is Reader Emeritus in Psychobiology at the University of Sydney and Research Scholar at the River Centre Clinic, Sylvania, Ohio.




De Onis, M. and Blossner, M. (2000) Prevalence and trends of overweight among preschool children in developing countries. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 72: 1032-1039


Cavadini, C. et al. (2000) US adolescent food intake trends from 1965 to 1996. Archives of Disease in Childhood 83: 18-24.


Atrens, D.M. (2002) The perils of puritanism. In D.M. Warburton (Ed.). The seventh Arise symposium - The senses, pleasure & health 94-114. London: Arise


Merzel, C. and D'Afflitti, J. (2003) Reconsidering community-based health promotion: Promise, performance, and potential. American Journal of Public Health 93(4): 557-574


A version of this article first appeared at SIRC.

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