Weighing in on Obesity

p2 burger credit Alan Chan

By Guy Brandon, 9 January 2015

Even discounting the fallout from the Christmas holiday we are, as a nation and a species, getting heavier.

Recent research from McKinsey showed that almost two-thirds of Britons are overweight or obese, defined as having a BMI of over 25 and over 30 respectively. The annual cost to the UK is around £47 billion. Globally, some 2.1 billion people – about 30 percent of the world’s population – are overweight, costing an estimated £1.3 trillion a year or 2.8 percent of global economic activity: ‘about the same as smoking or armed conflict and greater than both alcoholism and climate change’. The proportion is likely to rise to almost half by 2030. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver recently called on politicians to place childhood obesity at the top of their agenda; almost a third of 11-year-olds and over a fifth of five-year-olds are either overweight or obese. Meanwhile, around one billion people in the world are chronically undernourished.

What price cheap food?

For Christians hoping to get their teeth into the issue, things aren’t entirely black and white. Sometimes malnutrition and obesity go hand-in-hand. We live in the age of the 99p burger and the £1 pizza, both of which might be suspected of having approximately the same nutritional value as their own packaging. The reality is that it’s often more expensive, in both money and time, to eat healthily: in the comparatively wealthy West, obesity is a condition that disproportionately affects poorer people.

Food prices and quality are a perennial political football, bound up with the cost-of-living narrative. But there’s another side to it: we demand a stable supply of cheap food and generally don’t ask too many questions about where the savings are coming from (unless, as in 2013, we discover that the supplier is the stable).

Beyond this, we lead lives that aren’t conducive to exercise. Part of the reason might be laziness, but for many people it’s increasingly difficult to find the time for a workout in a busy week, juggling the commitments of long office hours, commutes and family. The same squeeze at the hands of our 24/7 society leads us to make poor food choices; a microwaveable ready meal holds a big attraction over a healthy one made from scratch when we’re already exhausted and overstretched.

Then there’s our love-hate relationship with food and body image. Popular culture worships the size zero model and there are always celebrity-endorsed diets to help you look like them. Ironically, if you feel bad that you don’t measure up, comfort eating offers a temporary solution. Treating ourselves with one or other delicacy is, the advertisers tell us, one of the ways we show we care about ourselves. In a society where loneliness and marginalisation are at epidemic proportions, it’s not surprising that we’re piling on the pounds. Price wars and confectionary strategically placed close to the checkout maximise temptation and pester power.

All of this has a personal impact, but it also has relational ones – whether it’s the escalating cost to the NHS of weight-related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, the economic productivity lost due to illness, or simply the fact that our friends, families and communities are all affected by our shorter lifespans and reduced ability to engage with them.

Obesity is certainly complicated. What’s clear is that one way or another, weight is a moral issue.

Obesity in the Bible

The Bible doesn’t say a lot about obesity. Mention must be made of Eglon, king of Moab, who is described as a ‘very fat man’ in Judges 3. He is killed by an Israelite spy named Ehud – an episode considered so unprecedentedly disgusting that some translations simply omit half of verse 22 altogether. But we can take few direct lessons away from this story.

There are various references to gluttony in the Bible – it is, after all, one of the Seven Deadly Sins of early Christian teaching. ‘Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.’ (Philippians 3:19) ‘Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.’ (Proverbs 23:20-21)

Jesus was accused of drunkenness and gluttony, but clearly knew how to fast. Unsurprisingly, the Bible considers adequate food a blessing but it requires self-control. ‘Everything is permissible for me – but I will not be mastered by anything. Food for the stomach and the stomach for food – but God will destroy them both.’ (1 Corinthians 6:12-13) Where it is mentioned, excess weight is often a side-effect of inequality and the injustice it brings with it.

Whilst this provides a starting point, we need a broader framework. Back in biblical times there were no ready meals, cheap cheeseburgers or manipulative advertisers, and the long working days were filled with physical labour. Our attitudes to food are partly personal, but they’re also collective, and span many different spheres of life.

Debt, sex, food

Two areas of life provide ready analogues: debt and sex. Both receive plenty of attention in the Bible (sex is the context of 1 Corinthians 6, which also alludes to food). In both cases there is no one reason for our current cultural approach. Instead, there is a complex network of factors that establishes and normalises certain harmful behaviours and lifestyles.

Personal debt is often, though by no means always, a result of poor personal choices. Other behaviours – impulse buying, gambling, over-eating and drinking – may contribute. But the blame cannot solely be ascribed to the individual. What about the companies that aggressively market the products that few of us really need? The banks and credit card companies who make credit available, even when they know it will adversely affect the borrowers? Or the government that not only has an unhealthy amount of debt itself but idolises GDP to the point where short-term economic growth fuelled by borrowing and consumption is more important than the environment, our wellbeing or almost anything else?

A similar dynamic exists for sex. Individuals are responsible for the choices they make. However, the commodification of sexual relationship and the damage that goes with it is part of a much wider picture. Public policy enables and even incentivises relationship breakdown through the welfare system. Advertisers, again, use sex to sell just about anything and everything (including food and credit). The mainstream media both trivialises sex in the sense of ‘casual’ sex and holds it up as the highest form of relationship, the only way that it is possible to find true intimacy – not so different to the ambivalence we have with eating and dieting.

Ultimately, our approach to food (as well as debt, sex and much else) is individualistic. We are encouraged to think of our diet and wider lifestyle choices as decisions that are ours alone. The lesson that the Bible almost takes for granted is this: there are no personal decisions, in that every so-called personal decision we take has impacts on other people. Everyone exists in relationship with others. Everything we do has relational consequences.

Responses

Obesity is a symptom of a much wider and even unhealthier issue in our society. Sex, debt and obesity all represent a kind of consumerisation of the sensual. Like debt and sex, there is a pervasive myth that is allowed to go largely unchallenged: a kind of cultural collusion that food is a personal matter that is no one else’s business. As the personal and collective costs become more apparent, we are finally starting to grant ourselves permission as a society to point out what we knew all along: that a lack of restraint – whether sexual, financial or gastronomical – borrows from the present at the expense of the future, and at the expense of those around us.

So, what steps can we take as Christians (other than the 10,000 per day that are the health experts’ recommended minimum)?

Fasting. Prayer and fasting come as a two-for-one deal in the Bible. In our food-obsessed culture, is it any surprise which of these regularly gets omitted? If you’re concerned about the influence of food in our culture or your life, what better way to put a line in the sand than skip a meal or two and make fasting part of your response?

Feasting. In the Bible, good food is associated with celebration. Take time regularly to cook a special meal and eat it, slowly, with friends and family.

Exercise as worship. Shoe-horning exercise into a busy day is even less attractive if you don’t enjoy it. But exercise is part of the way that we honour God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20, albeit in a different context). Make a point of praying, listening to worship music or a sermon if you’re out on your own. Alternatively, aim to build and maintain relationships by finding ways to exercise with other people.

Replace eating with giving. Small amounts of money can make a big difference to people in low-income countries. Foregoing an alcoholic drink, a snack or a dessert on a regular basis and putting the money aside to go to a good cause is a powerful way of reminding ourselves that we are blessed with abundance that others lack.

 

This is part of our ‘thinking aloud…’ series. What are your thoughts?

[Photo credit: Alan Chan]

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Category: Reports and Articles

January, 2015

Comments (5)

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  1. Joff Gribbin says:

    Guy Brandon’s article highlights that the incidence of obesity across the population is a function of other inequalities. If the issue is to be taken seriously it surely calls for action to change the societal arrangements which produce such inequality. The article certainly acknowledges that exclusively “personal” responses are likely to overlook our inter-relatedness. But the responses he proposes seem to be largely informed by the very individualism of which he is critical. Fasting, feasting, exercise as worship and charitable giving are commendable and may be beneficial in terms of our own health and the quality of our relationships with others, but fall short of what is sufficient to bring about widescale positive impact on a problem which is reflective of deeper-rooted inequalities. To deal with that comprehensively and sustainably, one must also hold to account our elected representatives to make good laws to prevent bad health and save lives.

  2. Graeme Stockdale says:

    I’m just a little concerned that Guy Brandon offers a reasonable analysis of causes of obesity in which gluttony is hardly mentioned and then in his desperation to find a Biblical perspective majors on gluttony which just feels a bit insulting to the poor considering his suggestion that poverty is one of the causes of obesity in our society. He also chooses in his Biblical analysis to ignore references to God delighting in fatness etc which shouldn’t be used to encourage gluttony or obesity but should at least merit some discussion. I also tend to agree with Joff Gribbin regarding the individualism of the proposed responses, not least the idea of being cocooned in one’s own little world, exercising, presumably with earphones connected to MP3 player. If the exercise is being taken in a rural or semi-rural or quasi-rural (e.g. park) then spiritually healthy exercise must include being immersed in your surroundings, not in some “ready meal” pre-cooked worship.

    • JubileeCentre says:

      Thanks, Graeme. Rather than focusing on gluttony I think it’s reasonable to blame our culture’s consumerism (illustrated by approaches sex and food in 1 Cor 6, for example), which is rather more complex and something that affects all of us, wealthy or otherwise. I’m also a little cautious to include the passages you mention about God ‘delighting in fatness’ without a lengthier discussion about what ‘fatness’ means here – I’d argue that it’s often a word used of healthy weight rather than unhealthy obesity, as with the ‘fat’ (sleek, well-nourished) cows of Pharaoh’s dreams… questions of translation and context become important here.
      And duly noted about appreciating God’s creation in your exercise, though this ignores the suggestions of exercising (and eating) with friends I also mention. I often ending up running on pavements and in the dark, so not everyone has that opportunity…

  3. JubileeCentre says:

    Thanks for your comments, Joff. Agreed that political lobbying should be a part of our response. Ultimately it needs to be a culture shift that takes place across every area of society, including in Westminster, schools, businesses, churches and homes – as with sex and debt. This isn’t an easy prospect, though, and this article just starts to address some of the changes that individuals and small groups of friends can make as a starting point! If you have thoughts about broader initiatives, please do share them. Consumer movements can be very powerful, for example.

  4. Andrea Candy says:

    As you say, obesity is complicated. It’s not just a moral issue for the individual, or a matter of lifestyle choice. I believe it represents a systemic injustice as well. The food industry needs to be accountable for the amount of sugar that goes into everything and the over-processing of food in order to ‘preserve’ it. Cheap food is so often bad food, but there is money to be made for the producers, in spite of the cost to society of increased medical problems resulting from obesity. Perhaps an analysis of the connections between the food industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the medical sector and government would better explain how deeply relational the issue of obesity actually is.

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