TCS Daily

Who's Fat?

By Dominic Standish - December 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Nations used to compete over trade and military spheres of influence. These days it is hard to find a country that does not claim it is the fattest in the world. 

Most assume that the US leads the league tables in obesity. But other countries are vying for that top spot. One in five Australians was reported to be obese by Medicine Australia and a TV program aired by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation predicted that Australia will overtake the US as the world's fattest nation within the next couple of decades.


"The rise [in obesity] in Britain is as fast or faster than anywhere else in the world," claimed Professor Philip James, the chairman of the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF). In Italy children between the ages of 6 and 17 have been confirmed as the fattest in Europe in surveys since 1990 by the IOTF. And it is not just a western problem. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), adult obesity levels are over 75 percent in urban Samoa and are almost 20 percent in some Chinese cities.


The WHO believes there is a world-wide epidemic: "Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with more than 1 billion adults overweight -- at least 300 million of them clinically obese -- and is a major contributor to the global burden of chronic disease and disability." Indeed, some say that "epidemic" is simply not a big enough word to describe the size of the overweight problem. "The word 'epidemic' doesn't even do this justice. It is one of the most profound medical crises we've had in generations," said Eric Topol, chief of cardiology at a US clinic in Cleveland.


Of course, chronic obesity is a health problem. But too often people who are overweight are grouped with the obese to inflate the figures -- as in the WHO quote above -- to represent an international epidemic.


We are not being killed off by an obesity epidemic, although many people are plumper. In the developed world, work has become less physical and food is more abundant. We are living longer, healthier lives. However, there are some negative cultural factors. Too often snacking has replaced the family meal and kids are getting less exercise as parents drive them everywhere, too fearful to let them walk the streets.


Governments have overreacted to the obesity scare and are increasingly attempting to regulate our lives. On 2 December, the US Preventive Services Task Force recommended that doctors should make obesity screening routine for adults. This federal panel stated that obese adults should be "offered" intensive diet and exercise counseling for at least three months.


In the UK, the government is reviewing the code for advertising high calorie foods during children's TV schedules. A Health Select Committee is carrying out an official inquiry into obesity and it has already criticized soccer stars for participating in TV commercials for soft drinks and potato chips. The Committee has grilled leading producers of burgers and soft drinks and TV commercials have been banned.


The Irish government has considered a special tax on fatty foods. In Italy, Health Minister Girolamo Sirchia launched a campaign in September for bars, restaurants and canteens to reduce the size of their portions.


But such measures are unlikely to be effective and face considerable disapproval, according to a recent survey. YouGov surveyed 2,405 people in the UK between 31 October and 3 November for the Spiked website about who should influence children's diets. Ninety-four percent of respondents said that parents should be primarily responsible for ensuring that children get a balanced diet. Two percent said the food industry; one percent said schools; and one percent said the government.


This suggests that the healthiest solution is for us to decide about our diets and exercise. The outlooks that blame governments, the media, food companies or genetic factors evade taking individual responsibility. But individuals should also be free to choose not to be concerned about their weight. If we decide to enjoy our food and exercise little, that is up to us.


We should recall that in some situations, people regard being overweight as positive. For example, Ghana has only slightly more underweight than overweight people. "This situation has been exacerbated due to the image of prosperity and success associated with weight gain in many of these societies," stated the IOTF. Surely this reflects the reality that most people in Ghana need to put on weight. But the sin of gluttony seems to have made a comeback with food now perceived as toxic.


Even here in Italy with its wonderful cuisine the following saying is going out of fashion: "L'uomo con la pancia รจ un uomo importante" (A man with a tummy is an important man).

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