We need to change our fatty-bashing culture if we are ever to have a sensible conversation about food and health. The fact is that our obesity and diabetes crisis is not simply a result of gluttony and sloth. The truth is far more complicated than that.
New Zealand is in the grips of a food-related epidemic. More than one in four of us are obese, more again are overweight. One in four Kiwis face a high risk of developing diabetes, a condition with some gory side effects that on average knock 8 years off your life. So far we have done little about this, because we believe that being fat is a matter of personal responsibility, the fatties have nobody but themselves to blame.
The idea that being fat is a lifestyle choice is a convenient lie that we have swallowed whole. Most Kiwis think that weight is purely an individual issue, so we tell our fat friends to stop being a pig and eat less, or get off your ass and move more, ideally both. But this conviction is wildly at odds with the fact that 95% of all attempts to lose weight through diet and exercise fail in the long run. Time and again we fail horribly to wage any control over our weight. Either we are a country of lazy hypocrites, or we have less choice over our weight than we realise. Luckily, the evidence points to the latter.
It is simply not true that our weight is a matter of choice. This is just a convenient myth that the food industry perpetuates, and we swallow it whole because it allows us to self-righteously point and giggle at fat people going for a jog while we munch on a pie. New evidence is emerging to show why many of us struggle with our weight, and the answers lie in our genes and upbringing.
It starts with genetic echoes over the millennia – our ancestors were locked in a constant struggle against hunger, and the ones that survived were the best at finding and scoffing food. This has left us with a built-in craving for high calorie sugary and fatty foods, and a predisposition to store those excess calories as fat. Some of us have more of these genes than others, with Maori and Pacific Islanders particularly at risk. To make matters worse, these genes can be kicked into overdrive by our experiences, especially the early ones in the womb and as a child. If our bodies think there is a risk of starvation then they start to horde calories, even though this causes damage in the long term.
In short, our body has a blueprint, a target weight it is aiming for. The target weight is determined by genes and early experiences, and then a bunch of powerful hormones make sure the body stays at that target weight. This is why so many diets fail in the long term; they may show short term benefits but when the hype is over we slump back to our target weight. We just aren’t built to starve ourselves. Whether it is genes or upbringing, by the time some people get old enough to make their own choices they have the odds stacked against them. That is why improving the diet of our kids is so important, as it sets the foundation for their whole life. We can’t blame fat people for their plight any more than we can blame children born addicted to heroin.
This is why some people are fat regardless of how much they jog and eat celery sticks, while others can eat all they want and not put on weight. Our bodies are programmed to keep a certain weight, and will do so at all costs. Although carrying more weight may increase your risk of lifestyle diseases, it is far from a perfect indicator – there are perfectly healthy obese people and incredibly sick skinny ones. Lifestyle is a better indicator of health than waistline, which is why many health professionals recommend people focus on being healthy for their size.
Exercise is not the answer, contrary to popular belief. At best lack of exercise is 20% of the problem. Exercise simply increases our appetite, and the benefits of exercise are so easy to blow with a simple indulgence, especially if you are eating the wrong foods. Former Warrior and Kiwi league player Monty Betham now leads a programme called Steps for Life working with overweight young people in South Auckland. He points out that it can take a person less than 4 minutes to wolf down a McDonalds Big Mac meal – yet it takes 80 minutes of vigorous exercise to work it off. Even guzzling a bottle of Powerade can wipe out a 20 minute jog.
This isn’t to say that you should give up on your fitness regime, or individual responsibility doesn’t play a role – we can all shift our weight but not as greatly or permanently as we would probably like. Ultimately our bodies are working to a blueprint and that limits our ability to change them. With either a lot of sloth or hard work we can shift our blueprint only a little in either direction over time. But by adulthood most of the damage is done, and if you wait until you have a heart attack or develop diabetes before you change your ways you are up for one hell of a fight.
Of course, none of this explains the recent rise in obesity and diabetes, we have the same genes as fifty years ago. All our genes can explain is where we are in the pecking order of fatties. The truth is that our whole population has increased in weight, and this has tipped those of us at the top end of the spectrum into the danger zone for a whole bunch of diseases. Just look at the inflation in most clothing sizes.
In short, ascribing our weight woes to individual responsibility is wrong, stigmatising fat people isn’t any more of a solution for our health woes than the Klu Klux Klan were for slavery. In fact approaches like see-saw dieting and stigmatizing fat people only make the obesity problem worse. The real driver of the obesity epidemic is our food environment. The next article will look at why the culprit – crap fake food – has become so ubiquitous, cheap and convenient.
Gareth Morgan & Geoff Simmons
From their book Appetite for Destruction: Food the Good the Bad and the Fatal