Obesity is clinically defined when someone’s Body Mass Index (BMI) exceeds 30. It is a metabolic disorder where by energy intake from food and drinks exceeds energy consumption from metabolism and physical activities. There are many health-related risks associated with obesity, especially for children. This includes increased susceptibility for type II diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and even premature deaths. In 2016, at least 650 million adults over the age of 19 and 340 million aged5–19 were obese worldwide, which makes it a pressing global issue. Fortunately, as with most non-communicable diseases, obesity is highly preventable. But before we rush into preventative strategies, we should examine who is to blame for this global crisis in the first place.
Historically, obesity has been regarded as a disease of irresponsible personal choices. Economic growth and rapid improvement in living standards suggest that we are better off, with our purchase and consumption of food no longer limited by financial ability. At the end of the day, our calorie intake and physical activeness are down to individual choices. We buy and consume more unhealthy foods that contain high amounts of sugar, saturated fats, and salt. Individuals often fail to recognise the long-term effects of over consuming energy-rich food and children are particularly susceptible to this. 90% of households exceed the daily recommended dose of sugar intake and consumers are often not even aware of the sugar content of products.
Modern lifestyle, from the proliferation of fast-food outlets to the abundance of automobiles, increases energy intake and reduces the need for physical activity, while long office hours leave little time for exercise. Also, takeaways are much more convenient and affordable now, increasing the ease of extra consumption and encouraging sedentary lifestyles. These choices are key contributing factors to obesity.
However, the food industry cannot escape its responsibility to this obesity epidemic. Promotions, discounts, and marketing of food brands all encourage people to eat more and profit food companies. High sugar products commonly have more market exposure and discount in price. Moreover, food and drink portions are getting larger over the past 30 years, increasing their energy content per portion.
To reduce sugar content in processed food, in 2015 the UK government established a goal of a 20% sugar reduction in the food and beverage industry. However, the vast majority of the industry has failed to meet this tar‐get. Other countries have launched sugar taxes in an attempt to reduce the consumption of added sugar, but there is great resistance from the Food and Drink Federation, which dismisses the tax as ‘political theatre’.
Furthermore, social environments can increase the tendency of becoming obese. Despite all of the campaigns for a healthier diet, the healthiest choice may not always be the cheapest or most accessible option. Foods containing high levels of sugar are often the most affordable. Consequently, cheaper foods are purchased and consumed more often by people in lower socioeconomic groups. This creates a socioeconomic gradient such that there is a widening health inequality between the rich and the poor.
So far, very little attention has been given to agricultural policies that in fact shape diet through food availability and price. For example, the European agricultural policies, which were prompted by food shortages resulting from World War II, called for an increase in the availability of energy dense foods, such as sugar, meat, and milk. However, these policies have promoted an overproduction of these products, allowing new public health concerns to emerge within society, such as obesity and diabetes. Examples of such policies include those on sucrose, which has been heavily protected by tariffs, minimum price guarantees, quotas, and export subsidies. In addition, the EU limited the production of high fructose corn syrup which is a substitute of sucrose, to 5% of all sugar production. Together, these policies lift up the profit margin and encourage European farmers to manufacture sucrose, leading to overproduction. The resulting growth of the sugar industry has made half of the world’s ten largest sugar producers to be in Europe.
In an environment that is antagonistic to healthy living choices, obesity should not be solely blamed on individuals. The issue is complex. Therefore, we need solutions not only in public health, but also agricultural policies and education. We as individuals, along with industry and the government must all engage in this battle, for the obesity epidemic to be defeated
This article was first published in our Michaelmus Term 2019 Issue: Perspective
All artwork by Alicia Hayden