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Judith J. Wurtman, PhD Headshot

Global Fattening

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We seem to be taking up more space on earth. This is not just because our numbers are increasing but because our girth is as well. A report of global weight gain and diminishing food resources by Sharada Keats and Steve Wiggins (Future Diets: reveals that, "the percentage of adults who are overweight or obese grew from 23 percent in 1980 to 34 percent in 2008." One in three adults -- 1.46 billion worldwide -- is now obese or overweight. And this number may be considerably higher in developed countries.

The consequences range far beyond airplane seats being too small or clothing manufacturers investing in developing new lines of outsized clothing. As we have been told for decades, rising weight means a rising incidence of health problems related to excess pounds. The list is familiar: diabetes, stroke, heart disease, orthopedic problems, and perhaps some cancers.

Changes in diet is the most obvious culprit. According to the report, when people are sufficiently solvent to be able to switch from their inexpensive starch-based dietary staples to more costly foods, they do not replace their daily staple of bread, rice or maize with more fruits and vegetables. Rather (and our country is an example of this), they eat more oil, sugar and high-fat animal products and larger portions. Moreover, the extra calories are not spent on as much physical activity as previously, since their better economic status allows them to travel via motorbike, bus, or car, rather than by bicycle or foot.

Like global warming, global fattening seems difficult or even impossible to halt or reverse. Decades of January diets, public exhortations to exercise, mandatory labeling of packaged foods and calorie contents of restaurant items and even the banning of trans fat has had little visible effect. We are told to eat more fruits and vegetables, low or fat-free dairy products, and more fiber. We are directed to pay attention to portion sizes, to stop drinking sugary beverages, to eat apples in place of daily cupcakes, and broiled fish instead of fried clams, and to watch our alcohol intake. But do we? Perhaps we do, at least until the end of the New Year's diet.

There are two problems: How are people going to be convinced to eat better nutritionally, and how are they going to be convinced to eat less? The article pointed out the "wimpy" (my word) responses of public officials and institutions to this problem. No one, except perhaps the past mayor of New York City, wants to impose taxes on junk foods or restrict how much of a bad food an individual is allowed to eat. Admittedly, there are some positive changes. School lunch menus have improved, and many vending machines that used to dispense chips and soda are either banned, or their contents replaced with yogurt and fruit.

Supermarkets sell ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables, so the sloppy task of peeling, slicing and dicing should no longer keep anyone from eating these important foods. Organic food sections have enlarged, and the dairy product cases are filled with so many containers of Greek yogurt, you feel as if you have learned Greek by the time you make your selection. Many items, from ready-to-roast marinated fresh salmon to freshly cooked turkey breast, make preparing healthful meals fast and relatively inexpensive.

But supermarkets also devote yards of aisle space to the chip family of snacks, as well as cookies, and food bars with the same calories and ingredients of a candy bar. No market, including those promoting organic foods, puts up a sign in front of the high-calorie food aisles warning about the temptations lining the shelves, or detours people back to the produce aisle.

Restaurants also contribute to the ease with which we can eat too much, and without nutritional soundness. Putting the nutritional wasteland of fast-food chains aside, how many restaurants promote, or even offer fruits and vegetables, without charging extra? High-fiber foods are rarely offered unless the restaurant is vegetarian, or defines itself as a place where healthy foods are served. And, of course, portion sizes only get smaller when the prices get higher.

So how do we convince people to reconsider eating a 2-pound steak, or a bucket of fried chicken, or polishing off a six-pack of beer along with chips and dip? Certainly not through government intervention. We are not about to install surveillance cameras over the heads of people ordering double cheeseburgers or buying a 64-ounce bag of Doritos. So far no EIS (Eating Investigative Units) has been established to monitor the overeating crimes of its citizens. And, as the authors point out, "Many people see food choices as a matter of personal freedom." They are not likely to accept the same sort of restrictions on eating as we as a country have accepted for smoking. No one is going to make a co-worker stand outside to eat his cupcake.

Complicating solutions to the growing obesity situation even more is the kaleidoscope of opinions as to what constitutes the right diet for weight loss, good health and longevity. For example, the Internet is replete with warnings to avoid eating white carbohydrates such as potatoes and rice. These foods are considered serious threats to weight and health in general, not withstanding the fact that cultures such as the Irish ate almost solely potatoes for decades, and that rice was and remains a dietary staple in vast areas of the world. We have been told for decades to take mega amounts of supplements to avoid a variety of health woes. Now it seems most of them are useless. For everyone who says that a certain food is good, someone else contends that food will poison the body.

Whose information can we really trust? The answer may be the decidedly boring one of moderation. Eating moderate amounts of a variety of high-fiber carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, lean protein and dairy products is not the kind of advice that makes for best-selling diet books, but doing so will sustain good health and a sensible weight.

But how can people be motivated to do something about their weight? When one in three individuals in your family, workplace, and neighborhood is either overweight or obese, does the individual even see this as a problem? Think of how we are now accustomed to seeing men with shaved heads. This is a look that, in the past, represented the unfortunate consequence of chemotherapy, or the results of a stressful situation that caused total hair loss. Now it is simply a fashion statement. If most people we see are not thin, we accept this as normal. Why worry about our weight and the possible health issues that may be developing because of it when everyone around us are also the same size or larger?

The answer may be in the strength and creativity of advertising. Motivating consumers to take on new behaviors such as buying gigantic TV screens, new cars, or the latest generation of cell phones is what effective marketing is all about. Stopping global fattening may depend on the talent of these professionals to convince us that we need to change our behavior in ways that make it seem that it was our idea all along.

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