Wednesday, October 6, 2010
The report says obesity is worsening throughout the developed world and becoming the top public health concern. One in two people is now overweight or obese in almost half the developed countries. In some, two out of three people will be in trouble within 10 years.
In Australia, 61 per cent of adults are overweight or obese, making us almost as fat as the Americans. In 20 years, our overweight rate has risen faster than in any other developed country. It is projected to rise another 15 per cent in the next 10 years.
And the good news? It's saving taxpayers money.
Although healthcare spending for obese people is at least 25 per cent higher than for someone of normal weight, and increases rapidly as people get fatter, severely obese people are likely to die eight to 10 years earlier, so their shorter lives mean they incur lower healthcare costs over their lifetime. It's even greater than the saving on smokers.
If you don't like that, try this. As measured by gross domestic product, obesity is a win-win-win situation. The more you eat the more you add to GDP and the profits of businesses. If the messages of advertising and marketing make you self-conscious about your overweight, everything you spend on fancy diets, gym subscriptions etc adds to GDP.
And then when you damage your health, everything you, the government and your health fund spend on trying to keep you going adds to GDP. Even when you die prematurely that won't count as a negative against GDP, although the absence of your continued consumption will be missed.
Get the feeling there's something amiss?
Two of our greatest campaigners on obesity are Garry Egger, the professor of lifestyle medicine at Southern Cross University and the founder of GutBusters, and Boyd Swinburn, professor of population health at Deakin University.
They've written a book, Planet Obesity, which takes a rather different tack. Since obesity is endemic, it can't be dismissed as the product of gluttony and sloth on the part of a few individuals.
Obesity has been rising since the 1980s. Before then it was rare. Clearly, it's a product of our modern lifestyle, of the way we organise our society.
We're getting fatter for a host of interacting reasons. According to the OECD report, the supply and availability of food altered remarkably in the second half of the 20th century, brought about by big changes in food production technologies and an increasing and increasingly sophisticated use of promotion and persuasion.
The price of calories fell dramatically and convenience foods became available virtually everywhere, while the time available for traditional meal preparation from raw ingredients shrank as a result of changing working and living conditions.
"Decreased physical activity at work, increased participation of women in the labour force, increasing levels of stress and job insecurity, longer working hours for some jobs, are all factors that, directly or indirectly, contribute to the lifestyle changes which caused the obesity epidemic," the report says.
See what this is saying? The rise in obesity is a product of the success of capitalism and the technological advance it fosters and exploits.
So far, those who haven't tried to blame the problem on the weakness of individuals have treated it as an unfortunate byproduct of modern life, needing to be remedied in some way so we can carry on as usual.
Egger and Swinburn see it very differently, not as a disease but as a signal. "It's the canary in the coalmine, which should alert us to bigger structural problems in society," they say.
Obesity and the health problems it often brings - type 2 diabetes, heart disease - are part of a rise in chronic conditions, including respiratory disease and many forms of cancer, that could eventually end our ever-increasing longevity, or at least make our longer lives far less pleasant.
People in developed countries have been getting taller and heavier since 1800. For almost all that time, our weight gain has made us healthier but in recent decades it's greatly accelerated and is now making us unhealthy.
So what's the signal Egger and Swinburn say the obesity epidemic is sending us? That we've passed the "sweet spot" - the point where everything's fine, the point of equilibrium, as an economist would say.
Until fairly recently, economic growth was making us unambiguously better off. Making us more secure, more prosperous and, because of scientific advances, improving our health. But now we've overshot the sweet spot and continued economic growth is starting to worsen our health.
It's a similar story with global warming. Economic growth and rising affluence - much of it based on the burning of fossil fuels - was fine as long as the world's sinks could absorb all the extra carbon dioxide we were pumping into the atmosphere.
But now we've passed that point, partly because we've been cutting down and clearing forests and other sinks, greenhouse gases have built up and are adversely affecting the climate. Should we fail to reverse this trend, much worse lies in store.
Egger and Swinburn say the trouble with humans is their tendency to overshoot by trying to maximise, rather than optimise, good things such as economic growth and plentiful food.
So the question is how long it will take us to recognise the signal that famine has turned to feast and too much feasting is bad for us. But however long it takes us, our trusty GDP meter will continue assuring us we're doing fine.