Obesity: causes and cures

Michael Schluter, March 2004

McDonald's Corp. won a major victory for the fast-food industry in the US last year when a federal judge threw out a lawsuit that blamed Big Macs, fries and Chicken McNuggets for obesity in children [REUTERS/Joe Skipper]

McDonald’s Corp. won a major victory for the fast-food industry in the US last year when a federal judge threw out a lawsuit that blamed Big Macs, fries and Chicken McNuggets for obesity in children [REUTERS/Joe Skipper]

Obesity in Britain is a rapidly growing problem. Since 1980 the number of obese people has trebled. It matters not just because it is generally associated with low self-esteem, but also because it increases the risk illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. Obesity is estimated to cost the NHS £500m a year and the economy18 million sick days a year. [1]

No one is certain how much obesity is caused primarily by nature or nurture. The rapid rise of its incidence suggests the latter plays a significant role. So Tony Blair’s government has been examining proposals to crack down on obesity and recently announced the beginning of a three month public consultation on the nation’s health. Numerous ideas have been floated including a tax on fatty foods (a disincentive like taxing cigarettes) or a ban on advertising junk food to children.

Some biblical truths

Biblical teaching acknowledges the sin of gluttony. It is associated in Deuteronomy with the young person who drinks too much and disregards parental discipline and advice (Deuteronomy 21:20 ). The dangers of excess are regarded as serious because they are associated with despising God’s word. Thus, Jesus himself is accused of being a glutton, because he associates with the social outcasts who were thought at the time to disregard God’s word. Lack of self-control, in matters of food intake, sexual conduct and so on, is culpable in biblical moral teaching (e.g. 2 Timothy 1:7).

Of course, different individuals have different metabolisms; there is no ‘right’ amount to eat or drink. Nevertheless, Paul tells us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. So whether in matters of food or sex, we are meant to take care of our bodies for the Lord’s sake.

Why now?

But why has obesity become such an issue today? Reduced levels of exercise is part of the problem. The perceived dangers on the street mean that most children no longer walk to school but rely on a car to take them. Young children also learn sedentary habits because parents often lack time to play physical games or walk at a child’s pace; toddlers are strapped into pushchairs or car seats. Many jobs previously involving manual, weight-reducing, work are now automated; they have been replaced by jobs sitting in front of computers. Comfort expectations have further reduced exercise as people use the car if it’s wet or windy rather than cycling or walking. TV has replaced active participation as the main way people experience great sporting moments.

Increased calorie intake is also part of the problem. Portion sizes have increased generally and snacking, sugary drinks and eating out are more common. Britain is the world’s biggest chocolate eater. [2] There have been numerous attempts to encourage schools to serve more nutritious, less fatty foods. Important as these concerns are, I would suggest the rise in the incidence of obesity is related to other factors as well. We need to look at the bigger picture.

A bigger picture

It is widely accepted that ‘eating disorders’ such as obesity or bulimia are often related to stress in close relationships. Such disorders can be a bid for control when the rest of life seems out of control. They are often connected with low self-image: a person does not value self because they feel no one has ever valued them.There are often relational causes to problems like obesity – and there is certainly ample evidence that relationships in the West are under strain.

What might relational solutions look like? There is the potential, for example, to help reduce stress in the lives of many families by offering ‘relational support’. This could be done with little cost by re-orientating the public services to watch out for and address relational stress. Primary schools could employ ‘family support workers’. Health visitors when tackling post natal depression could be trained to recognise the symptoms of relational stress and point its victims to appropriate help. The Relationships Foundation has recently launched Relational Health Audit tools to equip businesses to assess and improve their relational environment.

In addition, the huge stress so many face is, at least in part, due to the length of the working week. In the UK 33% of males work more than 45 hours a week. Compared with the rest of the EU, the UK averages the longest working week (45 hours), about 5 hours a week more than France or Germany . Reducing the work-related stress in people’s lives would help get to the causes of obesity and contribute to tackling other symptoms of relational distress such as alcohol abuse, child neglect and divorce.

The intentions of the Government are no doubt laudable. Nevertheless, there is a danger that economic considerations feature too prominently and that cures for obesity are too narrowly and individualistically focused on diet and exercise. Thus, we welcome the broader remit of the ‘Choosing Health?’ consultation announced by John Reid on 3 March. It is asking some good questions. A concern both privately and publicly for the relational factors that influence health is surely a significant part of the answer.

[1] ‘Tackling obesity in England ‘ Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, 2001

[2] The Economist , ‘Fat of the land’ 4 March 2004

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Category: News and Reviews

March, 2004

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