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The World is Fat!

The World Is Fat: Our Environment is Fattening the Human Race

Why are Canadians getting fatter and fatter? The simple answer is that we eat too much junk food and spend too much time in front of screens, television, phone or computer, to burn off all these empty calories.

The prescription for a healthier life is simply behaviour modification. It is very easy to lose weight and keep it off if you only ate more fresh produce and exercised on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, behaviour changes will not work on their own without huge shifts in our society because eating too much and exercising too little are merely symptoms of a much greater sickness. The real problem is a landscape littered with inexpensive fast-food meals; saturation advertising for fatty sugary products; inner cities that lack supermarkets; and unhealthy high-stress workplaces.

In other words: it’s the environment, stupid.

Every day people come in to my store and ask me how to lose weight. Unfortunately they already know the answer before they walk in. The reality is they are looking for a short-cut, a magic pill, a magic elixir that will transform them instantly into a god or goddess in a matter of weeks. They know that they shouldn’t eat junk food and they know they should exercise but the environment out there does not help them.

Imagine a drug addict who has spent 3 months in rehab and is clean and off all drugs. You then put him back in the street with his old pals and drug dealers. How long before he is using drugs? He cannot exist in that environment. However, if we can change that environment then his rehabilitation program may work.

Most researchers feel that we need large scale changes to food-pricing, advertising and availability but it would take a major epidemic and gigantic increases in heart disease and Type 2 diabetes before our politicians would fight the huge conglomerates that produce cheap food.

At the present time there are almost 8 million people in Canada who are obese and the majority of Canadians, over 60 per cent of us are overweight. It is interesting that the lowest incidence of obesity in Canada is in British Columbia, the lowest, then Quebec and then Ontario. The highest is in the Maritimes with Newfoundland having the honour of being the fattest province in Canada. Obesity has increased from 20 per cent of our population in 2000 to about 27 per cent of all adults today. It is estimated that the cost of treating the medical conditions of the obese is about 15 billion dollars annually.

So what great changes can we make to get Canadians to desert their love for fast food and adopt a healthy lifestyle? Equalizing food pricing for one.

Fast-food restaurants can charge lower prices for value meals of hamburgers and French fries than for salad because our government subsidizes the corn and soybeans used for animal feed and vegetable oil. That subsidized corn is also used to make high fructose corn syrup, the sweetening agent in the colas and the ketchup.

The inflation adjusted price of a McDonald’s quarter-pounder with cheese, for example, fell 5.44 percent from 1990 to 2007, according to an article on the economics of child obesity published in the journal Health Affairs. But the inflation-adjusted price of fruit and vegetables, which are not subject to governmental subsidies, rose 17 percent from 1997 to 2003, the study said. The author of the study, Dr.Popkin from the University of North Carolina concluded that cutting agricultural subsidies would have a huge positive impact on people’s eating habits. He also said that if we cut the subsidy on whole milk and made it cheaper only to drink low-fat milk then people would switch.

This situation is very obvious in the supermarket in which people with more disposable income spend a greater amount of their money in the produce section. Whereas lower income people spend very little on produce and whatever they do have on bread, pop and low nutrient foods that are filling. Once again the environment is a factor because people who live in low-income areas do not even have a supermarket and have to buy their food at the local convenience store; no produce selection but a great variety of soft drinks and chocolate bars.

The problem with the environment is that it is always out there. Some school boards have removed unhealthy snacks from their vending machines and so the kids simply meet for lunch or after school at fast-food restaurants. Many of you go to health clubs and gyms but if you see a vending machine it is highly unlikely it will contain any healthy snacks.

Even if you make a strong effort to eat your fruits and vegetables and prepare as many meals at home as you can, you do not want to eat healthy when you are out. This is a special occasion; a time for decadent food and possibly even desert. If restaurants only offered healthy sensible food on the menu we probably would not go. Restaurants provide an environment that suits our personalities, yummy food that we could and would not make at home; a delicious treat and we don’t even want to think about what is in it.

Advertising

Whether we want to admit it or not, our society is very strongly influenced by advertising. While the young mother is busy doing the laundry and cleaning up all the spills and messes, she puts the baby in front of the TV where she hopes the baby will be quiet. Meanwhile that baby is watching food messages from nearly every snack manufacturer and fast-food chain. How can you make your children eat their vegetables when everything else out there looks better? In Quebec they have instituted laws banning advertising to young children but who knows if they work. We need draconian laws that forbid the advertising of snacks and fast food just as we have the same laws forbidding the advertising of tobacco.

Britain now places restrictions on advertising fatty, sugary and salty foods during children’s shows but even if we did that here we would still have to contend with the American channels that own our TV’s. Britain is also mandating cooking classes for all 11 to 14 year olds students. The hope is to teach a generation of children who grew up on prepared foods how to cook healthy meals, making eating at home a priority option.

Workplace Stress

Many of the newer advanced companies understand that if you put employees in a stressful environment it can lead to obesity and a lot of very unhealthy workers. When these people start to suffer heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure conditions they cannot work and their absence and loss of productivity can cost their employer millions. In 2008 I.B.M. started a program to promote wellness among its employees. The Children’s Health Rebate encourages employees to increase their at-home family dinners, their servings of fruits and vegetables, and their physical activities, as well as to reduce their children’s television and computer time. Each family that completes the program receives $150.

Some employers actually encourage their employees to leave early so they can spend more time with their families, communities or favourite activities. They go home with positive energy, stay healthier physically and mentally and are better employees.

Cruelty to Children

Just recently the City of San Francisco passed a law that they felt would help children eat healthier. If you buy your child a meal that has less than 600 calories, contains fruits and vegetables and a drink without added sugar, the fast-food restaurant can provide a toy with the meal. Any meal that does not meet the criteria means that your child does not get the toy. On the surface this does seem like a good idea. But to a child who has been inundated with advertising waiting for this special visit to see the place that serves all the yummy food and gives away the toys, it is a cruel punishment.

A psychoanalyst, Edmond Bergler, a student of Freud once wrote that most adults never go beyond the mental age of three years. When we go to the restaurant, read the menu and look at all the food available we probably act like children anticipating the delectable delights about to come. How can we punish our children for being like us?

It’s our environment and until it changes it is what it is and we just have to contend with it. The world out there truly is fat.

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