Fat chance of personal responsibility

Trends come and go. In the Victorian era, many people died of consumption. Of course in those days we were referring to Tuberculosis. These days consumption means a very different thing.

It is without doubt that the World Health Organisation is right to see obesity as one of the major health threats to the western world. The NHS is bracing itself as increasing cohorts of the population succumb to obesity and increasing levels of what is termed “morbid” obesity.

The evidence is everywhere. We see TV adverts for outsized clothing suppliers. Staying with the TV, we have seen more cookery and food oriented programmes than in any previous generation. These programmes seem to focus on adding sugar to just about every dish. This is fine, if all you’re doing is fancy restaurant finger food that doubles as art, but if you add this to a cultural perspective of quality equals quantity as well, the populous is in real trouble.

The food industry has not helped this at all. The challenge of long-hours working culture lends itself so well to the ready meal with flavour enhancement from sugar, salt and other additives that more wholesome food is just frankly not that interesting to people. Add to this a culture of high sugar, carbonated drinks or worse, the employment of sugar substitutes that trick the brain into hunger, and we enter a gastronomic “perfect storm” wherein arteries block, waistlines expand, joints fail and relationships are ruined.

Then we have a self-interested industry around fad diets with everybody looking for a quick fix suffused with a pharmacopeia of fat absorbing medication, ultimately culminating in gastric band surgery actually succumbing to going under the knife or under the dulcet tones of the hypnotist.

It wouldn’t be a show without punch and it wouldn’t be an organised western society without the psychological profession coming out and “syndromising” a whole range of issues relating to body image and eating disorder. This profoundly affects some people and provides a whole ready-made range of labels that many others can use colloquially as a mental “get out of jail free” card, in substitute for actually doing something about what is happening to them.

Yes, it is the bitterest pill to swallow, but personal responsibility ultimately is what we have to take when it comes to our healthcare and our wellbeing. We should be more critical about the food industry and indeed a whole range of industries that simply want to sell us things. When it comes to food and drink, fizzy or otherwise we are left with somehow trusting an industry that has quite readily in the past slipped into the food chain various diseases including CJD, tranquilisers, “E additives” and, of course, “beef” that neighed! Our intensively-produced vegetables have about 5% the key nutrient levels of a century ago and come with flavours that have been selectively bred to ensure the public does not receive anything that is not sweet and have an impact. Even the humble radish has been selectively bred to ensure its peppery flavour is now more neutral.

Then let’s take a look at our obese populous. It’s surprising how many you will see administering healthcare services in our hospitals these days. I was staggered to attend a local outpatient unit recently to find no less than four morbidly obese healthcare staff there; hardly “on message” for the organisation. I get on planes these days and, as often as not, find myself cramped by the overweight adjacent passenger. He paid the same as me, but if my luggage is 1kg over, well… I’m sure being overweight is no fun, but neither is being penned in a bus, plane of train seat by the grossly obese.

There is no doubt about it; the problem of weight in our society is a complex one and multi factorial. For some people, it is an illness state. However, for others the term illness is often used in substitution for an abdication of personal responsibility. That responsibility is a complex process in itself. For the consumer, it is to understand that our health is in our hands, not in the hands of the food industry or even healthcare providers who, as we speak, are already reopening the debate about saturated fat in the light of inconclusive research. It is no good waiting for someone to tell you what to do. The secret is to take responsibility, know your body and how it works and act. For many that simply means eating less, exercising more and being fully aware of what it is you are injecting.

I fear if we do not achieve this, as a society we will overstretch already burdened healthcare and other services. Lives will be shortened. Overweight people, increasingly including children, will be unhealthy throughout their lifetime with muscular-skeletal problems, diabetes, fertility problems and coronary disease. Most of all, as a culture we will become so personally abdicative of our wellbeing that we seek increasingly to rely on a state that will put right our failure to make decisions that were in our best interests through “after the horse has bolted” health and welfare measures.

The French philosopher Albert Camus often referred to the world as absurd. It does seem to me to be continually absurd that half the world starves while the other half has such excessive abundance that many of its citizens will have foreshortened lives.

It’s about time we told it “as it is”. Obesity is a complex matter but it starts with a culture that makes your health and wellbeing your priority first and one upon which the majority of individuals must take personal responsibility.

David Cliff is Managing Director of Gedanken and Vice Chairman of the Institute of Directors’ County Durham and Sunderland Committee.