Obesity is Everyone’s Problem: A Response | Christopher Winter
I am going to get one thing out of the way first, I am overweight. I am exceedingly overweight in fact. I have been overweight since I was about 7 years old (I am now 20). I’m not proud of this fact and I do not expect others to accommodate me for it through their pity, their kindness, and certainly not their taxes. I am pleased to say that in recent months I have been losing weight, but that is besides the point of this article.
In contrast to what Charles says, being obese is, quite frankly, horrible. It has severely impacted my ability to socialise, to work, and indeed to do most anything. Fortunately, I have never really been seriously bullied for my weight. I am not precisely sure why this is the case; I suppose I have just gotten lucky for the past 13 years. However, I know many that have been subject to abuse for their weight. Despite what many seem to think, the ‘tough’ approach to treating overweight people simply does not work. I have never known of an overweight person bullied and berated into losing weight. In fact, often the complete opposite is achieved. You often end up with very socially ostracised, miserable, overweight people who repeatedly struggle and fail to pull themselves out of their position. Data is scarce for the UK, but in the US, 49% of people attempted to – and failed – to lose weight in 2018 alone.
We are also not really talking about a crisis of the ‘overweight’ we are talking about the crisis of obesity. These two things are similar but distinct. Being a few pounds heavier than average is of little concern to most people. Being obese is a serious health problem which is categorised as a disease. You may be happily overweight, but I have never met anyone who was ‘happily obese’.
Charles mentions in his article that the ‘cost’ argument of food is flawed. I agree with him on this point. If a rational consumer takes the time to shop around, look for the best deals, and think about what food is available at what cost, they will usually find that eating healthier is no more expensive (and is actually often cheaper) than eating unhealthily. However, this supposes that the average person is a rational consumer (they often aren’t) and it also assumes that people have the time to actually find healthier food and prepare them. In our new and strange ‘gig’ economy which many find themselves in, it is often much quicker and easier to find and prepare unhealthy food than healthy food. Normally, the preparation of healthy food requires a well-stocked pantry, larder, and equipment. At most an unhealthy meal may require an oven or even just a microwave.
We also live in an age where fewer and fewer people are aware of what is in their food. Unless you home cook every single meal from raw materials, it is unlikely that you will be fully aware of every ingredient in the food you eat. In recent months, I have started a rather successful drive to lose weight. A big part of this involved paying considerably more attention to the ingredients in the food I was eating. It took time, effort, and a fair bit of research to actually fully gather the information on what was in store bought food, what chemicals had been used, and what sort of impact this would have on my health. I am in no way against the use of preservatives, chemicals, and GMOs etc (they are a marvel of modern science) but it does make the process of checking your food far more complicated than it once was. Another fact that I have learned during weight loss is that humans are notoriously bad at portion control. According to research in the area, the average person will usually underestimate the amount of food they have portioned for themselves by about one third. Weighing food before preparing it is an absolute must for any attempt at losing weight.
Obesity is inherently a product of the current times we live in. Indeed, it is a wonderful thing that food (healthy and unhealthy) is so readily abundant and cheap. But when you live in a time where a prepared meal can be brought to you at the click of a button on an app, and almost every single inch of free space is up for sale for advertisement (and a considerable amount of that space is bought up and used by carefully crafted and engineered fast food adverts designed to make you hungry) it is easy to see how even a stubborn individual may be swayed to make more than just a few unhealthy impulse purchases instead of preparing something themselves.
In his article, Amos speaks about how brief moments of one’s ‘higher self’ making commitments can force one’s ‘lower self’ into sticking to those goals. That is simply not true. Almost everyone has experienced the buzz of energy from a new year’s resolution which they soon give up on only a week in. Many studies have been done around the psychology of making long term economic commitments to force yourself to do something and almost all of them show that there is no connection between the two (even if the investment was significant.)
Charles speaks briefly about the NHS in his article and about the impact that obesity has upon the NHS. Indeed, one of the largest burdens on the NHS is the additional cost accumulated by the treatment of obesity and obesity related diseases. I certainly agree that this is a problem that needs to be tackled, but surely the answer cannot lie in charging the obese for their healthcare – they are taxpayers after all, and we do not charge other people for their lifestyle mistakes. Surely it would make more economic sense in the long run to make investments into encouraging the public to lose weight. One would hope that that would significantly lessen the burden placed on the NHS by those people and actually result in a net benefit for the taxpayer?
I would also like to speak momentarily about Japan. Japan is considered an economically advanced economy similar to most Western European countries, yet Japan does not suffer from anywhere near the levels of obesity that the west does. There are many factors surrounding this which, for the sake of brevity, I won’t go into. But Japan is proof that an advanced and modern nation with an abundance of food and supplies does not have to be overweight. It shows us that obesity is not a symptom of wealth, but an avoidable side effect.
Obesity does not merely impact the individual. This highly atomised view of the world does no favours to the reality of the situation. From a purely economic view, obesity is expensive. It costs society as a whole a very large sum to treat obesity and obesity related diseases. But from a deeper view, it has considerably more ramifications on society as a whole. People’s physical fitness impacts their ability to socialise and be productive. Fitness affects people’s cognitive function and ability to think. Obesity is holding people back from reaching their fullest potential and keeping their lives less enjoyable and shorter.
Am I saying that the government should buy everyone a fully stocked cupboard of cooking equipment? No of course not. Am I saying that the government has a right to intervene in people’s lives and force them to be thin? Nothing of the sort. What I am saying is that obesity is an extremely pressing and expensive problem that all of society faces and that action does need to be taken now to reduce the burden on ourselves in the future. From an entirely economic argument, a £100 million investment now could be the key to stopping the billions of pounds that obesity will cost us in the future. We need to take the education surrounding food preparation seriously, we need to make it easier for people to understand what they are eating, and we need to show people the positive effects of a healthy diet.