A couple of years ago Air New Zealand’s April Fools prank was the launch of a new ‘pay what you weigh’ fare. This year Air Samoa made that concept a reality by charging its passengers by weight. It doesn’t matter whether it is your bag or your butt, to Air Samoa a kilo is a kilo.
You can see where the airline is coming from. They operate small planes, and in a country with one of the highest obesity rates in the world, more weight means higher fuel costs. The charge also accounts for the discomfort a passenger faces when forced to sit next to someone who is bigger than their seat. At first brush, it is simple user pays. As an economist I am usually the first to applaud such a move.
But in this case things are not quite that simple, and in fact the implications of the move are as enormous as our growing waistlines. As you will see in my forthcoming book on the impact of food on our health [working title Appetite for Destruction], our weight is not as much a matter of choice as most of us think it is. New evidence is emerging to show why many of us struggle with our weight, and why ultimately so many ‘diets’ fail. As with many complex problems, obesity is caused by many factors including our genes, upbringing and modern living habits, as well as our choices. Gluttony is not necessarily the culprit.
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, and Pacific Islanders such as the clientele of Air Samoa are particularly at risk. To make matters worse, these genes can be kicked into overdrive by our early experiences in the womb and as a child. If our bodies think there is a risk of starvation then they decide 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. Powerful hormones regulate the body to stay at this 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.
This isn’t to say that individual responsibility doesn’t play a role – we can all choose where we are compared to our blueprint. With a lot of sloth or hard work we can even shift our blueprint 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, genes don’t explain the recent rise in obesity. What has changed is the environment around us. We now have an abundance of tasty but nutritionally bereft food that can sit conveniently on a shelf ready for whenever we have a craving. People are baffled by this huge array of foods, a weakness that diet books and food advertising both seek to exploit. We have also bought into the myth that this food is cheaper, probably because we can’t be bothered or have forgotten how to prepare food ourselves. And finally modern living is full of many habits that add to the problem – like driving to work, television, stress and lack of sleep. Over time these habits can convince our body’s blueprint to upsize even more.
What does this all mean? Totting weight up to individual responsibility isn’t as simple as a ‘pay as you weigh’ system suggests. We can’t change our genes, so as our Chief Scientist Peter Gluckman has pointed out we have to do our darndest to ensure our babies get the best possible early life experiences. But why stop there? Are we consigning all living Kiwis to the risk of an early death at the hands of diabetes and obesity? Cracking this problem would mean tackling our modern way of life, and particularly the way we eat.