Deborah Coddington

Deborah Coddington is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Deborah Coddington: The market's to blame for obesity? Fat chance

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We aren't allowed to shame the obese as we can with smokers. Photo / Getty Images
We aren't allowed to shame the obese as we can with smokers. Photo / Getty Images

It's official: we're a nation of idiots who can't make decisions to save ourselves or take responsibility for our problems.

That's according to two academics from Otago University, researchers in public health, Dr Gabrielle Jenkin and Penny Field, who specialise in the obesity epidemic.

Interviewed this week by Kathryn Ryan on National Radio, Field tossed off a comment which sent me into deep despair. Obesity, she said, was "not a problem with individual choice and self-discipline, which we've proved successfully doesn't work".

Instead it's the fault of "big institutions and the market".

The obese as victims. It's come to this. Fat people are mentally incapable of choosing what's right and wrong when it comes to putting food in their mouths.

In New Zealand, 63 per cent of us are overweight or obese, so, by Field and Jenkin's reckoning, the brain power of 63 per cent of the New Zealand population is on par with labradors or ponies which can't stop eating themselves to death.

Government needed to do something, they complained, starting with more regulation of advertising, particularly on children's television.

What I interpret from this is that, zombie-like, our children are brainwashed into wanting bad food.

In turn, they demand this bad food from pliable parents who can't say no and, too dumb to discern healthy food from bad food, meekly buy that which "the market" or "the big institutions" persuade them to buy.

How conspiratorial.

If this is the case, we might as well give up. The Government could just nationalise all food outlets, supermarkets, dairies, greengrocers and farmers' markets and the Minister for Food Safety could have an army of inspectors to ensure we only eat healthy food, with no fat or sugar.

And why stop there? Why not have the Government issue us all with packed lunches every day? After all, it's not just our children who are obese.

Every day, in every town and city, we all see fat people waddling along, heaving themselves into planes and cars, but are we allowed to comment on this, the way we were encouraged to shame smokers into quitting (who also cost taxpayers dearly in terms of the public health bill)?

No, and now we know why. According to Jenkin and Field, they can't help it. It's all the fault of the food industry, a force to be reckoned with in terms of its well-funded and slick lobbying, according to these academics.

In 2006, Jenkin sat through the select committee inquiry into obesity, chaired by Green MP Sue Kedgley, and concluded the food industry has far too much influence on policy-making when it comes to trying to curb obesity.

You could easily have substituted the words "tobacco industry" for "food industry" in this interview, such was the palpable disgust these women had for food manufacturers. Anyone would think the food industry conspires to make us obese.

Haven't they forgotten something? We actually need food to survive. The makers of all foodstuffs - even hamburgers, pies, pizzas, fizzy drinks and cakes - don't hold guns to our heads and force-feed us, as if we're foie gras geese.

And I'm no academic, but here's a simple question on choice. If fat people can say "no" to a brisk walk and a salad at lunchtime, then surely they can give the same answer to an invitation to Burger King?

This attitude from academics is patronising and silly. Yes, there are some grossly obese people for whom stomach-stapling is the only resort, so impossible is it for them to lose weight, but they're a small minority.

For the rest of us, choice and self-discipline most definitely does work. Eat less food, whatever that may be, and exercise more. If we jettison that weapon in the weight-control battle, what next? Budgeting? Fighting fraud? Why bother prosecuting directors of finance companies who fail to protect the savings of investors by exercising self-discipline and choice, but excuse themselves by saying they were victims of the global financial crisis?

Jenkin's final words were that the food industry needs to be held accountable for obesity. No. Individuals need to be held accountable and stop blaming food and its makers for their problem.

- NZ Herald

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