Eating Liberally Food For Thought

by: Living Liberally

Mon Oct 29, 2007 at 12:45

By Kerry Trueman, Eating Liberally

The United States remains the world's heavyweight champion when it comes to obesity, but the British are closing in on us, and they're not happy about it. Two just-released reports show that the number of obese adults in Britain has tripled since 1980, earning it the distinction of being the fattest country in Europe.

Government officials and health experts are suitably alarmed, and anxious to find ways to turn more Brits from fat to fit. Britain's health secretary, Alan Johnson, calls the obesity epidemic a "potential crisis on the scale of climate change."

But the cultural forces that feed this crisis are so pervasive that it will take a massive effort to reduce the U.K.'s collective body mass. As a spokesman for the International Obesity Taskforce by the almost unbearably British name of Neville Rigby told the CS Monitor:

"You can't just say, 'Eat less and be more active,' in a world where it's impossible to be active because the roads are congested and you can't walk anywhere and the only food you can get cheaply is not very healthy and you're advertising it all the time to people."

Sound familiar? A sedentary lifestyle coupled with a surplus of cheap calories equals a nation facing catastrophic health care costs. One of the reports, a major review from 250 experts, noted that our current way of life essentially guarantees excess weight gain because our metabolisms haven't adapted to all the labor-saving devices we've created. Professor Peter Kopelman, one of the contributors, noted:

"The undeniable fact is that the pace of the technological revolution has outstripped human evolution."

In other words, we have to go work out at the gym, now, to burn off all those calories our ancestors would have just naturally expended in the course of the day. No hunting and gathering, just grunting and panting.

None of this is news, really. What did shock me, though, was the list accompanying the article, drawn from the World Health Organization's database. It shows the percentage of obese adults in a number of industrialized nations, and the difference in rates is dramatic:

Rates as a percentage of the total population:

US 30.6
Britain 23.0
Slovakia 22.4
Greece 21.9
Australia 21.7
Hungary 18.8
Czech Republic 14.8
Canada 14.3
Spain 13.1
Germany 12.9
Finland 12.8
Turkey 12.0
Belgium 11.7
Netherlands 10.0
Sweden 9.7
France 9.4
Switzerland 7.7
Japan 3.2

(Source: Health Profile of England 2007, with data from the World Health Organization's June 2007 Health For All Database.)

Why does Canada have only half the number of obese adults as the U.S.? And the French really don't get fat, except by comparison to the Japanese, whose rate of obesity is astoundingly low.

Living Liberally :: Eating Liberally Food For Thought
Do our neighbors to the North live so differently from us? Don't they have comparable geographical and cultural conditions that help pack on the pounds? Why the drastic differences between countries that would seem, on the surface, to have a similar lifestyle?

Maybe it's because we live in the Land of Outlandish Proportions. I was still scratching my head over the piece in yesterday's CS Monitor when I came across an article in today's edition from their resident linguist, Ruth Walker, entitled Large is Back-In a Very Big Way. Walker explores how the simple classifications of small, medium and large have been, well, largely replaced by the jumbo-grande-collosal-giant-mega portions that give us such monstrosities as 7-Eleven's 64-ounce Double Gulp soda. That's right, a half-gallon soda served up in one sitting.

Walker was inspired - and appalled - by a recent report that nutritionist Lisa Young co-authored with Marion Nestle which reveals that abnormally large portions are still the norm in the fast food industry, despite the growing health crisis caused by all these excess calories. Young asks "Are we that much thirstier or hungrier than we used to be?"

I haven't heard any of our presidential candidates really talk much about the obesity problem, except for the formerly fat Mike Huckabee. Global warming fares a little better, but deserves far greater attention than most of our politicians are giving it.

But what really needs to be made clear, and what no one on the national stage is saying, is that the obesity epidemic and climate change are simply two sides of the same coin-overconsumption. We are sacrificing our nation's natural resources and polluting our air, soil and water on the altar of More: Big Gulps, Monster Thickburgers, and, from McDonald's--which has retired the phrase "supersize" but not the concept--the Angus Third Pounder.

And our crazy-big carbon footprint is leaving its mark on the rest of the world; as more of us eat more meat and guzzle soda by the half-gallon, rain forests get depleted, greenhouse gas emissions rise, and corporations turn water to soda in countries where millions lack access to safe drinking water and drought depletes our water supplies here at home.

Consider this: a municipal water authority in India sells water to Coca-Cola for its bottling plants there at one quarter the rate it charges its own residents. Here in the U.S., as Coco-Cola's home base, Atlanta, runs dry and Georgia's governor declares October "Take a Shorter Shower Month," Coca-Cola's vice president of sustainability, Bruce A. Karas, tells the New York Times that:

…no one from the City of Atlanta or its water planning district had approached company officials to ask them to conserve water. Mr. Karas said the company had worked to reduce consumption on its own since 2004.

"We're very concerned," Mr. Karas said. "Water is our main ingredient. As a company, we look at areas where we expect water abundance and water scarcity, and we know water is scarce in the Southwest. It's very surprising to us that the Southeast is in a water shortage."

But as the article notes, Georgia's officials should have been well-aware of-and far better prepared-for an impending water shortage:

"We have made it clear to the planners and executive management of this state for years that we may very well be on the verge of a systemwide emergency," said Mark Crisp, a water expert in the Atlanta office of the engineering firm C. H. Guernsey.

Looks like the leaders we're supposed to rely on have got their heads in the sand, presumably looking for untapped reservoirs of water and oil. They're fiddling while the rest of us burn, just as the musicians on the deck of the Titanic played on till everyone drowned.

I'm just praying that Morgan Spurlock's soon-to-be-released documentary What Would Jesus Buy? will do for overconsumption what SuperSize me did for junk food-that is, get people thinking and talking about it. We'll have to look to the film's stars, the Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping, to find out what Jesus would buy, but in the meantime, I'm going to go out on a limb and bet that he wouldn't turn water into a Big Gulp.

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