The Angry Post

So here are a few facts that make me lose sleep at night:

  • Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980.
  • NZ adults and children are around the third most overweight of all countries in the OECD.
  • We are right up there for diabetes too – and the rate is increasing yearly.

Crikey – that adds up to a whole lot of kids being robbed of a healthy childhood.

“So just eat less and exercise more (calories in, calories out) – it’s all about individual responsibility – people are overweight because they are greedy, or lazy, or both.”

Yeah – I used to think along those lines in another life. But these are really just useful catch-phrases much loved by industry and government departments as they absolve them of doing anything about the problem.

The calories in-calories out theory (balance your calorie intake with your exercise) is a flawed equation based on the first law of thermodynamics. It only works if humans are a simple, closed system – they are not! There are so many factors that affect how many calories we extract from different foods, and how much is stored as fat. This Zoe Harcombe lecture explains it very well.

And it is well established that calories from different foods act very differently (this book by a team of NZers explains the concept rather well).

Exercise is super important for optimal health, but as a weight-loss/control tool, it has very minimal effects. This has been well established in a multitude of studies.

Weight control is mostly about the food you eat, and the state of your gut health (your microbes).

The fact is things have changed rapidly in the last fifty years

  • Our food chain has become highly processed.
  • Our nutrient intakes have changed as a result.
  • The populations of microbes living in the human gut have altered drastically (the brilliant Martin Blasser explains why in this book) – this is hugely significant given that microbes play an instrumental role in determining whether or not our food makes us fat (this is why two people can eat exactly the same diet – but one person gets fat on it, while the other stays slim).

What are those three facts that are keeping me awake at night really about?

A global food chain that in which profit and health are largely mutually exclusive outcomes.

Nanny States

The argument goes that a government who regulates a food industry too tightly (ie limits advertising, restricts and taxes unhealthy ingredients, requires health warning labels) is creating a “nanny state” in which the right of the people to buy their kids a coke is being infringed upon.

It is clearly a strong argument, as evidenced by this: When the USDA tried to regulate the sale of soft drinks in schools, the fizzy drink companies successfully sued the USDA for ‘exceeding its authority’, and Congress removed the control that the USDA had over nutrition in schools. They later restored that controlled, but only on the condition that the USDA promise not to ban fizzy drinks and junk food in schools (Marion Nestle’s latest book is a wealth of information on this topic). The rights of children to have coke and chips for lunch prevail!

We have a right to eat our way to an early grave, damnit.

So this is an argument about rights.

I agree – rights are very important, but I would rank rights a little differently.

I would suggest that foremost should be the rights of children to grow up free from a pervasive, cancerous, ubiquitous, multi-billion dollar, direct and indirect (stealth) marketing-campaign designed to sell ‘food-like products’ (because it sure as hell isn’t actual food that Big Food companies sell) made of incredibly cheap ingredients – most of which have been shown to be detrimental to health – at a maximum profit.

I think ‘food-like products’ may even be too generous a term for many items (eg fizzy drinks and most breakfast cereals) – I just looked up the definition of poison: “a substance that is capable of causing the illness or death of a living organism when introduced or absorbed.” I think a lot of this rubbish is allowed to be sold as food simply because it doesn’t kill people obviously, or immediately.

I would rank the rights of a business to make money at the expense of the health of consumers somewhere further down my list of priorities.

But the food industry is working hard to make food healthier, isn't it?

So nutritionist, Nikki Hart would have you believe in her rather entertaining video series for the NZ Food and Grocery Council, as she appears to suggest that choosing a smaller sized can of sprite is the answer (watch an hilarious parody of the clip here). The big players in the food industry are answerable to their shareholders. Their job is to maximise profit. You can hardly blame them for coming up with creative and clever ways to protect profits. They know that by creating the appearance of self-regulation (with a few voluntary token restrictions) they can avoid pressuring the government into imposing external-regulation. They are expert at finding the level of compromise that will bring in the most coin, while keeping both government and consumers onside.

Alright, but the government will sort this out, won’t they?

Nope. Not really. Much as I favour democracy over other political systems, it sort of shoots itself in the foot on some issues of social-good. Industry has an enormous amount of influence over governments – this is documented very well in many books – ‘Death by Food Pyramid’ by Denise Minger being one of them.

The government, like big business, is answerable to its ‘shareholders’ – but not all shareholders have equal power. I think it is fairly obvious that the CEO of Nestle will have more power than an overweight, diabetic kid from a low socio-economic group. I’m not saying ‘down with big business’ – we need to drive the economy, right? I’m just saying I wish we could balance competing interests in a slightly more egalitarian manner.

Does this have anything to do with broth?

Well it sort of does a bit. Broth is just a good example of a real food – one that is cheap, good for you, and really quite accessible in New Zealand (easy enough to DIY if you can’t find an affordable local supplier).

Ultimately – I reckon that taxation and legislation are the best ways to protect people’s health on a population basis. But taxation and legislation won’t happen without the simmerings of public discontent. I am hoping that social media will grow as a tool for promoting real-food revolutions – that it will stir the pot of discontent, and lay the foundations for change.

Righto – I feel a bit better for getting that off my chest. Time to go a simmer a pot of my own for lunch. Cheers all.