Scientists, politicians, media, and health professionals note that Western countries face obesity and fatness epidemics. Large numbers of poor, malnourished children are obese because the cheap, processed, low-nutrient food bought by their parents – bread, cereals, snacks, etc. – contains high concentrations of sugars.
In addition to the systemic factors explored below, there are darker, more secretive reasons for our addiction to what the late philosopher-comedian George Carlin called “slow death by fast food.” But it is not just fast food. To save money on raw materials, sell innovation to other companies, and hook consumers onto their products, food giants have developed intricate supply lines for big firms like McDonald’s and PepsiCo. Using sophisticated design techniques based on the biology of pleasure and addiction, they have contributed to ill-health.
Obesity can cause serious health problems that lower life-quality, shorten it, and frequently lead to hospitalisation. Cushing’s disease (excess cortisol), polycystic ovary syndrome, and other ailments can cause obesity, as can depression. Usually, however, pathologies are caused by obesity. Typically, obesity results from the individual’s overeating, choice of foods, and lack of exercise. In most cases, obesity and weight gain do not appear to be solvable by the individual. Data suggest that most people who diet and exercise cannot lose weight and sustain their weight loss. Rather, weight-loss is typically achieved by a holistic change-of-life approach, not by dieting and exercising alone. This is partly because the system makes people revert to their old, sedentary lifestyles and partly because they are addicted to bad food. Only a comparatively small number of people can sustain weight loss without changing their approach to life and food. Obesity can cause, contribute to, or worsen cancer, coronary heart disease, gallbladder disease, high blood pressure, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, sleep apnoea, and type-2 diabetes.
Systemic reasons for the obesity crisis include the unconscious, evolutionary flaw that makes people eat more than they need to in case they cannot eat again for a while. In nature, food can be scarce. In our artificial societies, it is abundant. Our brains developed to overeat in case of scarcity. Anthropologists note that once humans developed settled agriculture 10,000 years ago, obesity became a problem for the first time.
A related issue is that the human body is built for hunting and gathering. We are “born to run,” as anthropologists put it, yet modernity enforces sedentary living: the bus or car to work, sitting at a desk for most of the day, watching TV in exhaustion in the evening. Our intestines are now excessively long because our ancestors used to eat raw foods that took longer to digest. High-nutrient, fat-burning raw food diets are a niche, not the norm. The system has separated us from our environment: biodiversity is replaced by fields for monoculture, the nutrients in soils are depleted along with the pesticides and transport time, and the shelf-life of food lessens its nutritional quality. Work exhausts people and processed ready-meals are cheap. Corporate branding brainwashes us into reaching for high-sugar treats.
The epidemic of fatness and obesity has many consequences. Typically, overweight people are less happy and live shorter, unhealthy lives compared to thinner people. Morbidities including diabetes, heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, and excess cholesterol often combine to make individuals more susceptible to death and injury from bacteria and viruses, including SARS-CoV-2.
The World Health Organization defines overweight and obese as excess fat accumulation relative to body mass index (BMI): “a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of [their] height in meters (kg/m2).” Overweight is BMI greater than or equal to 25 and obese 30. Globally, obesity relative to population increase has tripled since the 1970s. Nearly 2 billion adults are overweight and 650 million are obese. Relative to population size, the fattest populations on Earth tend to live on small islands: American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Tokelau, and Tonga.
In Australia, nearly 70 per cent of adults are overweight: around half of whom are obese. Obesity is more common in older people. Poverty is a factor. Poor people are up to 40 per cent more likely to be obese than their wealthier counterparts. In the UK, nearly 70 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women are overweight. Of those, a quarter of men and a third of women are obese. Each year, around 800,000 British people are hospitalised with weight-related ailments: over 10,000 of which are directly related to obesity. Prevalence of obesity tends to be higher in the Midlands and in the Northeast of England around Durham, Hull, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire. These areas correlate to deprivation and poverty. On average, over 50 per cent of Europeans are overweight or obese, with numbers varying from country to country: e.g., 36 per cent in Italy and 54 per cent in the Netherlands…