Don’t blame parents for childhood obesity
State must act to tax products with high sugar content and promote healthy, nutritious food
Spaghetti Bolognese is a meal lacking in fibre, but high in saturated fat and refined carbohydrate. Photograph: Getty Images
Safe Food Ireland (SFI) launched its campaign against childhood obesity, with billboards urging parents to reduce portion size. But blaming parents draws attention away from a defective food chain that the State is doing nothing to ameliorate.
Moreover, SFI’s choice of a plate of spaghetti Bolognese for its posters is puzzling as this is a meal lacking in fibre, but high in saturated fat and refined carbohydrate.
There is no hint of a vegetable, let alone the latest dietary guidelines in the US and UK advocating half a plate of vegetables or fruit.
The message is: there’s nothing wrong with what is on the plate, just serve less of it.
It is important to point out that the body mass index (BMI), the current measure of obesity, is a clumsy metric. Slim people often store fat in dangerous areas, especially around their stomachs. This is known as TOFI: thin-outside-fat-inside.
Moreover, up to a third of people who are clinically obese avoid chronic diseases; many athletes are categorised as obese.
Being overweight should not be stigmatised as once weight is put on, it is difficult to lose.
Robert Lustig, author of Sugar: the Bitter Truth, observed: “Once the balloon is filled, it doesn’t want to be deflated.” A person can be simultaneously healthy but overweight if they exercise and eat a healthy diet.
An evolutionary perspective suggests that refined sugar is unsuitable for our bodies. In The Story of the Human Body, Daniel Lieberman writes: “Since natural selection adapted the human body over the last few million years to consume a diverse diet of fruits, tubers, wild game, seeds, nuts, and other foods that are rich in fibre but low in sugar, it should hardly be surprising that you can develop illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease from consistently eating foods that are loaded with sugar but depleted of fibre.”
Paleo-biologists performed DNA footprint analysis of 3,000-10,000-year-old stool samples from caves in Texas and estimated that these cave dwellers consumed about 100g of fibre per day, yet our mean consumption is less than 20g.
Prof Mike Gibney, chairman of the Food Safety Authority, takes a different approach and this seems to inform Government policy. The author of Something to Chew On argues that the obesity epidemic is a simple product of insufficient calories being burnt.
He writes: “The fact is that every food category plays a role in obesity. For some it is fast food, for others it is big lunches and dinners.”
At a recent conference he argued against a “fat tax”, and downplayed the relevance of social background: “If social class is important in obesity, it is only if it is associated with a genetic predisposition to obesity.”
Yet no single “fat gene” has been isolated, and any genes associated with obesity long precede the recent upsurge.