How to tackle childhood obesity

Childhood obesity is becoming a growing concern in our society. I personally think it is totally fixable but not until we start pointing fingers in the right places. Prepare yourself for one of my most controversial (and possibly most libelous) post yet.

“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.”

Sir Thomas More, Utopia

Has anyone seen the new advert for the Triple Cheeseburger? Apparently the good people at McDonalds* decided that two burger patties simply aren’t enough to satisfy our appetites. So they added a third, god love ’em.

A triple cheeseburger will set you back 588 calories (over twice as much as a single cheeseburger). So basically 600 calories of cheesy meaty goodness. It’s also only 60p more expensive than the beloved double cheeseburger.

Bargain!

Here’s a question for you. When did a single burger stop being enough? When did we start to crave two… wait, three patties inside our burger buns?

Why are childhood obesity rates increasing?

It’s a question we need to be asking ourselves as a society. Over the last 60 years, food has gotten cheaper and there is a lot more of it than there used to be. The amount of money that we spend on food has dropped during that time too.

In the USA, the average family spent approximately 17.5% of their total household income on food in 1960. This has dropped to less than 10% today. I struggled to find the statistics for the UK but I imagine they are similar. Interestingly, we still spend the same percentage on eating out as we did 60 years ago (approximately 5%). But that means we spent less than 30% of our food budget eating out in the 1960s, but now it is around 50%.

Photo by Jack Sparrow 

Surprising, isn’t it? Other things, such as buying a house or keeping a car have become less and less affordable over that same period of time. But food has become cheaper and cheaper, and we can afford to buy larger and larger quantities. We also spend considerably more eating out than we used to.

Now we already know that eating too much is the biggest reason that people develop obesity. We also know that people who eat out more have higher rates of obesity too. So perhaps these statistics are not so surprising after all.

A couple of quid for a burger is pretty cheap, all things considered. I mean, it doesn’t even pay for a bus fare where I live. An extra 60p for an extra patty seems like a bit of a bargain. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a bestseller in no time.

Who is responsible for childhood obesity?

But wait, McDonalds isn’t at fault, are they? They just make the burger. They don’t force you to eat it. Surely they can’t be held accountable? Clearly it’s the greedy child’s fault for spending their pocket money on an unhealthy meal that looks and smells delicious but is clearly very bad for them. They should have chosen an apple.

Or perhaps we shouldn’t blame the child. That feels a little mean. We should blame their negligent parents instead. It is their responsibility to feed their child healthy and nutritious food, and they should know better. Sure, it’s pretty challenging to feed your child fresh, nutritious food for under £2 even for the thriftiest shopper, but that’s not the point. They should be trying harder.

Does anyone remember back in 2002, when a group of overweight children filed a class-action lawsuit against the McDonald’s Corporation seeking compensation for obesity-related health problems? Remember how people reacted to that? There was a national outcry. It became the butt of pretty much everyone’s jokes. People laughed and pointed fingers and dismissed the idea as an example of just how ridiculous the American legal system had become.

Photo by Pexels for Pixabay

Poor little fat kids blaming McDonalds for their own greed and poor decisions. Nobody asked them to eat it, so how can the supplier of unhealthy food be held to account? And I guess that was a pretty reasonable response, no matter how crassly it was delivered.

In my humble opinion, this goes back to my previous post when I asked who was to blame for the obesity epidemic. When it comes to childhood obesity, we either blame the children themselves or the parents who should know better. But are there other people that need to be held to account as well? Should society as a whole hold some of that blame too?

Why obesity in dogs teaches us a lot about childhood obesity

You may recall that I recently adopted a puppy. Milo has pretty much taken over my life, as all good puppies should. I spend hours every day training him, cuddling him, cleaning up after him, reading all about how to be a responsible dog owner… And, of course, feeding him.

Did you know that obesity is a growing concern among dogs? You see, dogs will eat whatever you feed them. In fact, pretty much every animal will eat whatever you feed them. Have you ever heard of a lion turning down a bit of antelope because they’re stuffed and they are watching their figure?

Of course not. Every mammal out there eats whatever they find whenever they can find it. Because they never know where their next meal is coming from. And until relatively recently, humans were the same.

But now, food is readily available and it is cheap. We don’t need to worry about whether or not we will be able to feed our families next week. Because we spend less than 10% of our income on food nowadays, and that buys us more than enough. Portion sizes keep getting bigger and bigger. Fewer and fewer people in the world are going to bed hungry. And this should be a good thing.

But that isn’t always the case. Because our bodies haven’t gotten the message. We are still naturally inclined to eat whatever is available. Does anyone blame dogs for being obese? Of course not. It’s a dog’s natural instinct to eat the food that he is given. It’s the owner’s responsibility not to overfeed their pet and to make sure they get enough exercise.

Photo by Steshka Willems 

How many people reading this would rather blame the parents than the fast food industry for childhood obesity? Most of you? Good. I suspect that is exactly what they want you to think.

The industry is, after all, worth approximately 15 billion pounds in the UK alone. They can therefore afford to spend a small fortune in advertising, influencing the media/politicians, and shifting the blame away from themselves.

How advertising plays a huge role in childhood obesity

Let’s talk about advertising for a second, shall we? Do you know how I know about the triple cheeseburger? It’s not because I’ve tried it. [No seriously, I haven’t. The double cheese was always my jam, but even I will admit that I think that the triple is taking it too far.]

No, I knew about the triple cheeseburger because I was on my way to the pet store to buy my dog a bigger harness, when I came across a giant billboard advertising the damn thing. A conveniently placed billboard, since my local Golden Arches is just a few metres down the road.

Now I was not thinking about food at the time. I was thinking about dog harnesses. I was trying to get Milo to stop pulling on his lead. My mind was in several places all at once, but none of those places involved my stomach. And then I looked up. All of a sudden, I was craving a burger. Wanna guess why?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The same goes for supermarkets. We all know that they place certain items right next to the checkouts so that we will suddenly develop a craving whilst waiting for the person in front to stop chatting to the cashier and start packing their shopping away.

Ideally, there is some kind of offer on the goods in question, which will tempt us even further. Supermarkets aren’t stupid. They know this stuff works. Ever been queuing up to pay and noticed a bag of carrots next to the checkout? No, you haven’t. [Unless the person in front of you changed their mind and dumped it there next to the multipack of mini muffins.]

Companies like Coca Cola, McDonalds and Nestle* are worth a lot of money. They rely on the fact that human beings are attracted to their products and will be lured in by advertising and marketing ploys. So maybe the parents aren’t the only ones to blame either. Maybe some of the responsibility lies with these companies too.

You prevent childhood obesity the same way we tackled smoking

In 1948, 82% of men in the UK smoked. At that time, most people had no idea that smoking was linked to so many diseases and would ultimately lead to premature death. Cigarettes were advertised everywhere. Women were encouraged to smoke in their pregnancy! It was ridiculous.

By 1974, 45% of the UK population smoked. We were beginning to wise up to the fact that cigarettes were harmful. Tobacco companies were still advertising their wares and encouraging people to ignore the growing evidence. But they hand’t been able to advertise on television since 1965. The tide was slowly changing.

Photo by Basil MK 

By 2002, the figure had dropped to 26%. A year later, the UK would ban all forms of cigarette advertising including magazines and billboards. Between 2003 and 2006 the figure dropped a further 4%. And then we banned smoking in public places.

Nowadays around 6 million people in the UK smoke. That’s less than 15% of the adult population. And unsurprisingly, tobacco companies have fought this progress every step of the way.

The Fatdoctor’s foolproof plan to tackle childhood obesity

[In the interest of full disclosure, this is not actually the Fatdoctor’s plan. Far smarter and well-meaning people came up with it first. But I’m gonna pretend it’s mine and if anyone questions me I will simply lie and shout things like “fake news”. Watcha gonna do about it, huh?]

In all seriousness, do you want to know how to cure childhood obesity? Well here goes…

Number one. Stop portraying obesity as a weakness. Stop blaming people for overeating. Overeating is human nature. For some more than others, I grant you. But the media insists on portraying obesity in a purely negative light. There is very little empathy or compassion for people who struggle with their weight.

Every time the issue comes up, news reporters like to spout statistics and show images of fat people waddling around their local town centre carrying overladen shopping bags. The message is clear. Fat people are greedy. It’s in their nature. The media also likes to use inflammatory language and misrepresent the facts.

[It’s not just obese people that suffer as a result of bias in the media. Just look at the Black Lives Matter movement.]

Number two. Ban advertising of all unhealthy food. Fast food. Soft drinks. Crisps and biscuits. Not just on TV but on billboards and in magazines. If we were to ban McDonalds* advertising today, what do you think would happen to their profits over the next 10 years?

Photo by Owen Barker 

Number three: Stop selling unhealthy food in areas where children are present. Thanks to Jamie Oliver, our primary school dinners have improved a bit. But that’s just not enough. Why are there vending machines in pretty much every sports facility and swimming pool?

In fact, why are there vending machines anywhere? There are studies to show that people are essentially quite lazy when it comes to food. If it is not in front of them and they have to work to get it (and that can be as little effort as walking across a room) they are less likely to eat it. If you want a chocolate bar and your only choice is to go to a shop, wait in line and pay for it before you can eat it, then you are significantly less likely to have one.

It’s that simple. Whilst you’re at it, ban supermarkets from placing unhealthy food around checkouts or in other sections so that people are less likely to make impulse buys. Make people have to walk to the specific aisle to make their purchase. And no more special offers either. Let’s see what happens to the sales of junk food then.

Together we can tackle childhood obesity

If you follow all of the above steps, I can pretty much guarantee you that rates of childhood obesity will significantly fall. How do I know? Because in the 1960s around 50% of people in the UK smoked. By the time we had banned advertising, forced supermarkets to hide cigarettes behind closed doors, and banned smoking in public places that rate had fallen significantly. Within a couple of generations, we are down to less than 15%.

That’s bloody marvelous if you ask me. Most people think that these were the real driving forces behind the decline. It wasn’t because people suddenly cared more about their health than they did in the 1960s. Nowadays, cigarettes are too expensive and too inconvenient to smoke. They are also a lot less relevant. We don’t see pictures of happy people smoking on the cover of magazines. Instead we see grotesque pictures of sick and dying people on every packet.

Now these were not the only reasons that people stopped smoking, I grant you. There were several smoking cessations programs set up by the government and the NHS. Children learned about the dangers of smoking in classrooms. All of these contributed. But they weren’t enough on their own.

I would argue that the same thing applies to obesity. Weight loss programs and nutrition classes in school are not the only solution. We need to do more.

Photo by Carles Rabada

In an ideal world, people chose kale salads over KFC and tap water (in a recycled bottle) over Pepsi. But that’s asking a lot. Just like it was a lot to ask people to stop smoking a highly addictive substance whose properties include relaxation and hunger suppression.

Congratulations to all the people out there that have never touched a McDonald’s, chose healthy food over junk food every time, and don’t have a sugar addiction. You deserve a great big pat on the back.

But seeing of the rest of us aren’t nearly as virtuous as you, isn’t it about time we stopped blaming people (especially poorer communities) for their lifestyle choices and start pointing fingers at the (extraordinarily wealthy) companies that enable them?

Fixing childhood obesity is relatively easy to do. The problem is that there are a whole bunch of people out there that don’t want you to know that. Which is why this article will probably never see the light of day.

Disclaimer (aka please don’t sue me)

*I would like to point out that whilst I singled out McDonalds for the majority of this blog post, I don’t actually have a problem with any individual company per se. My issues are with the fast food industry as a whole. This post is simply an expression of my own personal point of view and does not reflect the company that I work for (I work for the NHS, in case anyone was wondering).

So who do you blame for childhood obesity? What do you think of my three step plan that isn’t actually my plan but I’m pretending that it is? Drop me a comment in the box below. As always, if you’d like to know more about me, including how to subscribe to me mailing list then click here.

3 thoughts on “How to tackle childhood obesity”

  1. If the simple, easy solution to fatness is to make it less easy/encouraging for people to eat too much of the wrong kind of food, then fat people must be fat simply because they eat too much of the wrong kind of food. And of course it follows that thin people must be thin simply because they don’t eat too much of the wrong kind of food.

    You are “campaigning for an end to weight stigma,” yet the above belief is inherently stigmatizing. If “it’s human nature to overeat” then thin people are thin either because they’re not human or because they are superior in character to fat people.

    Is eating too much of the wrong foods something that (both fat and thin) people do? Of course. Are food ads and vending machines drivers of disordered eating for some people? No doubt. Is banning such things going to fix obesity? No. Because one can have a regular diet of primarily nutritious, slow food and still be fat. And we do not know how many fat people that is true for.

    There’s an alternative and actually non-stigmatizing way to look at obesity concerns: there are biochemical differences between people, genetic and environmentally induced, that determine how food is metabolized. And it matters, in fact is crucial for appropriate health care, that doctors operate on this understanding. I’ve not yet met one that does.

    1. Thank you for this. I couldn’t agree more. After receiving your comment, I decided to completely reformat my website to make it clear that not all of the posts that you will find here reflect my current beliefs.

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