Thursday, September 07, 2006


Following is an editorial and letter in reply that appeared in The Irish Times

When it comes to food on the Irish table, a multiplicity of concerns confronts consumers. Likewise, producers and food companies are faced with a different set of ever-changing and demanding issues. The need for nutritional value, safety, traceability and quality, however, arises from both perspectives. The "What We Eat" series in this newspaper over the past week served as a valuable audit of consumer eating trends and food production in 2006.

Above all, it signalled how obesity is the most complex issue of all. It is set to take a terrible toll on future generations if a co-ordinated and sustained response is not pursued by governments, health authorities, those in the food chain - from farm to table - and individual consumers. The new super-sized Irish generation is all too evident. But where does responsibility lie for this disturbing picture of public health?

Prof Michael Gibney of UCD has shifted the focus on to the individual and away from the popular target of blame - the corporate food industry. Some 94 per cent of calories consumed are "home-based". So the problem is largely in our kitchens and is linked to a rushed lifestyle where convenience and indulgence seem to have the upper hand. A majority of people are overeating.

Given the scale of the problem, it is not sustainable for food companies to cling to their view of choice and free trade. Insisting that consumers are demanding lower-fat foods but that their purchasing and eating practices are far different is a cop-out which ultimately restricts genuine choice. Not all companies are guilty on this front. Many, including some multinationals, sense what's coming down the line. Their preferred aim is to generate a product that is healthy, convenient and indulgent. Among others, there are too many instances of shameless pushing of an indulgent and/or a larger portion strategy. Products highlight a benefit such as low fat content that, in effect, conceals high salt or sugar content.

Co-operation with health agencies is possible, as shown by work with the processed food sector in reducing salt levels in Irish foods. An unprecedented preventative health crusade is equally vital. The cost of major health promotion programmes should be tied into social partnership agreements and placed against the savings made in reducing risk factors for chronic disease.

What we eat, however, should not be dominated by negativity. The range and quality of foods has never been better. Food continues to be central to great social gatherings. What's more, in the new Europe the days of blind over-production in agriculture are ending and the food consumer is becoming king.

The reply:

Your Editorial of September 2nd propagates the notion that the alleged obesity epidemic can be blamed on food manufacturers. The thesis seems to be that food, somewhat like cigarettes, is prepared in such a way that it contains dangerous and addictive ingredients and unwitting consumers are forced to eat it, thereby damaging their health. The objective seems to be to blame the food companies in the same way that the tobacco companies were (quite rightly) blamed.

This position is not supportable by rational argument. The food we eat is not poisonous. By and large, there is no such thing as unhealthy food, only unhealthy portions. Someone who eats nothing but lettuce will have as many health problems as someone who eats nothing but hamburgers - probably more, actually. In order to survive and maintain health, the human body requires all of the ingredients contained in our food, and that includes fat, carbohydrates and salt as well as protein, minerals and vitamins. The notion that fatty foods or sugary foods are inherently unhealthy, or just plain bad, is simply nonsense.

The key is how much we eat. Practically all of the food on our supermarket shelves and all of the food in our restaurants is perfectly healthy if eaten correctly, i.e. in the right quantities and proportions.

This is where the focus must shift to individual responsibility. Only the individual can ensure that his or her diet is sensible, balanced and healthy and compatible with his or her daily exercise regime. Food companies cannot possibly do that, nor can restaurant owners, nor can the Government. In this regard, your assertion that the food companies' defence is a "cop-out" is most unfortunate.

Diverting responsibility away from the individual and on to the food companies is the real cop-out. It allows people who might have health problems due to diet to simply blame someone else and do nothing. As long as that persists, nothing the food companies can do, nothing the Government can do, will be of any avail.

I have to confess I am pretty sceptical anyway of media stories of widespread health problems and very confused by media reports. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we are bombarded with scare stories of how we all have lousy diets, and as a consequence are overweight and unhealthy. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, we are terrified by reports that we are and living so long that a pensions crisis is resulting. Which is it to be?

Dr NORMAN STEWART, Malahide, Co Dublin.


Genetics at work again

People who fidget are less likely to be obese, a new study shows. Associate Professor Catherine Kotz, from the University of Minnesota, in the US, will present the new research at the International Congress on Obesity in Sydney on Thursday. The study indicates orexin-A, a chemical found in the brain which triggers spontaneous physical activity like fidgeting, is more reactive in thin people. It results in them moving for up to two hours longer in a day than obese people, it found.

"You often see some people who are always fidgeting, getting up, in-and-out of their seat, or just really don't sit around much," Prof Kotz said. "And we know other people who do tend to be much more sedentary throughout the day (are heavier)."

To prove the theory, she injected the brains of rats of varying weights with orexin-A to see to what extent their weight affected their response. "We injected orexin-A into normal rats and it caused increased movement," she said. "When we inject it into lean rats they're very sensitive to it, they really increase their movement. The obese rats don't seem to respond. "So that said, to us there is some difference in the orexin-A signalling in their brains."

She said the results are significant because humans also have orexin-A in their brains. She said the results of her study corresponded to the results of another study in Minnesota which found that thin people fidgeted much more than people who were overweight.

Dr James Levine, of the Mayo Clinic, put sensors into the underwear of lean and fat people to measure their movements every half a second throughout the day. The results showed that thin people spent two hours more a day making spontaneous movements than their heavier counterparts.

Prof Kotz said her team were also investigating whether the involuntary movements could be induced to help wheelchair-bound patients. "We're actually studying wheelchair-bound patients who can't exercise," she said. "We know forced exercise can make you lose weight (but) we're (trying) to think of ways of trying to increase non-volitional activity."

Prof Kotz said that while it was not possible for humans to have the chemical injected into the brain, and a pill would be digested before the chemical reached the brain, humans could eventually be treated with orexin-A in the form of a patch on their arm that delivered the chemical straight into the bloodstream.


Junk food tax 'won't stop obesity'

Taxing unhealthy foods in a bid to put the brakes on the obesity epidemic would be ineffective, inefficient and unfair to the poor. Access Economics health expert Lynne Pezzullo said the growing clamour from health experts for a so-called "fat tax" was misguided and would hurt the poor much more than it would hurt the rich. Low-income people who were not obese would suffer unduly as a result, she told an international obesity conference in Sydney.

A "fat tax" also incorrectly assumed that the type of food consumed was the problem rather than the amount of food - a point that was also made this week by federal Health Minister Tony Abbott, who said there was nothing wrong with the occasional "treat". A fat tax was also likely to be ineffective because it assumed consumers would switch to healthier options, although "analyses show demand for food is insensitive to price", she said. "Subsidies that change the price of food haven't been shown to be effective at this stage," she told The Australian. "There's no strong evidence one way or the other."

Experts in Australia and overseas have called on governments to discourage the consumption of unhealthy foods. The chairman of the International Obesity Taskforce, Philip James, and Australian diabetes expert Paul Zimmet made a joint call for intervention last month, urging a ban on all marketing of food to children, strict food and physical activity requirements in schools and the adjustment of "fiscal policies" to increase the price of sugary and fatty foods relative to healthier alternatives.

Ms Pezzullo spoke in a conference debate on the issue of whether childhood obesity "can be improved without the heavy hand of government". She argued that taxes and regulation, such as advertising or marketing bans, qualified as a "heavy hand" and were unnecessary. She said lighter intervention - such as partnerships with the private sector to encourage healthier products, and subsidies - might be warranted. However, she said subsidies were best used to support after-school physical activity programs and other things shown to be cost-effective. The only circumstances where food subsidies might be warranted was in small rural areas where healthy food was significantly more expensive, she said.

One of her opponents in the debate, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation chief executive Rob Moodie said there was "a role for regulation, absolutely" and without it there was "absolutely no way we are going to curb this epidemic". "We have an environment and a culture and an economy that promotes obesity - every message you get is about how you can consume more and be more inactive," he said.

Obesity researchers at the conference yesterday called for a global ban on the advertising of all junk foods and unhealthy foods to children to help curtail the global obesity epidemic, effectively giving junk food similar treatment to the tobacco industry. The International Association for the Study of Obesity is the first member of an alliance of five health bodies, including the World Heart Federation, to back the ban and increase pressure on the World Health Organisation to make a strong stand against marketing techniques that exploit children. There was enough evidence to conclude that food advertising adversely influenced children's health, said Gerard Hastings, professor of Social Marketing at Scotland's Stirling University.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike.

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.


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