Fat and fiction
Michael Gard, author of The Obesity Epidemic, challenges the idea that we are greedier and more slothful than ever.
The consensus about obesity goes something like this: People are getting fatter because they exercise less and eat more than in the past, and this has led to a rise in lifestyle diseases and early deaths. Yet is this consensus the product of scientific research, or a modern morality tale dressed up as health advice?
That is the question asked by The Obesity Epidemic, a refreshingly sceptical new book by Michael Gard and Jan Wright, two Australian physical education academics. They were inspired to write the book after discovering that the science of obesity is far less certain than we have been led to believe.
‘I had been doing some work on the side, looking into claims being made about obesity, such as that physical activity levels are declining’, explains Gard. ‘And I kept coming across statements like, “Of course, we have no conclusive proof…but we know physical activity must be going down”, throughout the scientific literature.’
Indeed, much of the scientific research on obesity makes assumptions that fly in the face of the available data. As Gard and Wright show, the available evidence suggests that we are as generally active today as people were 30 or 40 years ago and that, if anything, we are eating less these days.
‘It strikes me as common sense’, says Gard, ‘that middle-class Westerners in particular are eating less and eating better than their grandparents’ generation did. And the idea that young women, in particular, are less physically active than, say, my mother’s generation – that just seems to be a non-starter.’
Confronted by this lack of supportive data for the obesity consensus, Gard and Wright conclude that the model of the body as a machine – where the amount of energy in minus the amount of energy expended tells us the exact weight gain or loss – is unhelpful for explaining weight changes, especially at a societal level.
Consider dieting: attempts to lose weight by eating less or exercising more tend to end in failure. Yet that failure is always laid at the feet of individuals who are said to ‘lack willpower’, rather than leading to a questioning of the dieting strategy itself.
Behind the discussion of food and diet, there lurks the prejudice that there is something about modernity that makes us soft and fat; that modern life is corrupting. Gard says we should challenge the transformation of obesity into the biggest health concern of our age. ‘Of all the things we could be talking about, we are focusing on millions and millions of people in Western countries who are going to live average lengths of time and die average deaths.
‘We’re spending all this time telling them to exercise more and lose weight when it’s doubtful if dropping your weight from a Body Mass Index of 31 to 28 will help you live longer. Nobody has ever proved that it will.’
Gard and Wright also explore how the obesity debate has become a blank slate on to which various commentators scribble their own morality tales.
They critique Greg Critser’s bestseller Fat Land. Critser, ostensibly a liberal, blames expanding waistlines on the softening of moral and religious values in the Sixties. Critser gave an interview to the UK Observer, in which he said: ‘Most of us are fat because we are slothful and gluttonous. In the course of researching my book, I came to believe that, morally, overeating is wrong.’
American conservative Mary Eberstadt grinds a different axe: she claims that fat kids are the results of poor parenting, and in particular, working mothers. ‘Given that parents and related adults across history and cultures have policed their children’s eating habits…in what kind of social universe do adults cease to perform this task?’, she asked. The answer, she concluded, is that absentee parents who dump their offspring in front of the TV while they go off to work are producing ‘overstuffed children’.
Yet none of these assertions is rooted in scientific consensus. Commentators like Eberstadt merely gloss over uncertainty; as Gard and Wright put it, ‘the phrases “firmly established” and “appears clear” smooth the way for the identical argument put forward in Home Alone America: working mothers are to blame.’
Yet Gard seems to project some theories of his own on to the obesity debate. He tells me that there have been some ‘quite startling’ statistics on obesity over the past 15 years, but he doesn’t think the spike in that period can be explained by ‘general moral decline’. Rather, he thinks we should perhaps look at issues such as poverty and labour deregulation. ‘I’m wondering’, he says, ‘whether the focus on individuals doesn’t obscure some very important and fruitful debates about the macro’.
This idea, however, seems to present the individual as being at the mercy of forces beyond our control, which turn us towards becoming tubby and over-indulgent. In an interview for The Times (London), Gard, like many of the commentators on obesity, has called for ‘restricting how much and when snack and fast-food companies advertise’ and ‘where and to whom they can sell their food’. Doesn’t this feed into one of the prejudices of today’s obesity debate: that we are weak and generally fickle individuals who need to be protected for our own good?
Gard is more critical than most, however, of the intrusion of governments into our personal lives. ‘We have entered a period of history where it is okay for governments and medical institutions to presume to give advice about very intimate things in our lives’, he says. ‘It’s always been around, but today it is connected with this whole self-help age that we live in, where everybody has advice for how we should live.’
The penchant for petty interventionism crosses party political lines, he says. He notes that the re-election of the Conservative government for a fourth term in Australia has signalled greater intervention into people’s lives under the banner of health, along similar lines pursued by the Labour government in the UK.
‘In Australia, they have just brought in a rule that schools can get extra money if they have compulsory after-school physical activity. The idea that you can programme kids and they then become physically active for the rest of their lives…it doesn’t work like that. Money is being poured into programmes that will have little or no effect.’
Gard doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but The Obesity Epidemic does a good job of smashing some long-standing assumptions about diet and exercise – and the moralising that underpins them.
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