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The obesity epidemic – too much food for thought?

We are surrounded by energy-dense foods that result in a positive energy balance. lordwikket/Flickr

The policies and public health strategies that we have implemented are proving inadequate for controlling the global epidemic of obesity. An effective approach may be for governments to implement radical policy change – regulate food consumption and control the food industry in a similar way to the tobacco industry.

Our environment promotes obesity by providing more frequent opportunities for excessive consumption of food and encouraging sedentary lifestyles. Portion sizes have increased, and “king size”, pre-packaged, ready-to-eat snacks are widely available. Readers have probably seen chocolate bars taped to bottles of soft drinks and foot-long sandwiches.

And smaller portion sizes are often not on offer. In the early part of the twentieth century Coca Cola was sold in approximately 200 ml bottles. Today, it’s sold in 600 ml to 1000 ml bottles for individual consumption. Larger-sized chocolate bars and packets of crisps encourage excessive consumption while giving the impression that we’re getting better value for money.

Obesity is a physiological maladaptation to the environment. Apart from a relatively small number of people with specific metabolic disorders and a genetic predisposition, its fundamental cause is consuming too much food for the level of energy expended.

The result of energy intake exceeding overall expenditure is a positive energy balance. Couple this with the human body’s ability to store large amounts of energy as fat and you have the reason for the obesity epidemic. Any factor that increases energy intake or decreases energy expenditure, even by a small amount each day, will result in weight gain in the long term.

The fundamental problem of positive energy balance requires radical changes in our society and environment. These changes have to empower people to change their eating behaviour. And we’re kidding ourselves if we think this is merely about personal choices and that we’re not influenced by the constant mass marketing of certain foods and beverages.

Here are some measures worth considering:

  • higher taxes on fast foods. Local government tax revenue on fat- and sugar-dense foods could be used to provide subsidies for fruits and vegetables

  • pricing strategies to promote purchases of healthier foods

  • increasing the availability and lowering the cost of foods that are low in fat and less energy-dense

  • banning fast-food advertising on the television, radio, and mass media, and with sport

  • increasing social marketing of healthy foods

  • requiring manufacturers to put health warnings, and use traffic-light labels on selected foods and drinks

  • providing financial incentives to manufacturers and food outlets to sell smaller portion sizes and

  • rationing the purchase of selected foods.

Let’s consider the most controversial of these suggestions, the issue of rationing. During the second world war (1939–1945), the British government introduced food rationing with a point system in every household. Everyone was allocated a number of points a month and certain food items, such as meat, fish, biscuits, sugar, fats, and tea, were rationed.

Every adult was given a total of 16 points a month and could choose how to spend these points. Special supplements were available for young children, pregnant women, and people with certain diseases. Wartime food shortages and government directives forced people to adopt different eating patterns. They ate considerably less meat, eggs, and sugar than they do today.

Rationing was enforced in Britain for 14 years, and continued after the war had ended. Meat was finally derationed in June 1954. Petrol was also rationed, so people stopped buying and using cars, and public transport was limited. There was no “obesity epidemic” as food supply and travel was limited, meaning people ate less and did more physical exercise (walking).

Interestingly, during the years when rationing was enforced, the prevalence of obesity was negligible in the United Kingdom. And waste was minimised as both individuals and government agencies were busy finding new ways of reducing the waste of food resources to a minimum (sustainable consumption).

Is it conceivable that some form of food rationing and portion control may help address the dramatic rise in obesity and the sustainability of our foods supply? If we continue to over-consume foods in unsustainable ways for both our health and our planet, we may be left with no other choice.

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