How Junk Food and Diets are Shortening Our Lives
We know that Britons are getting bigger. The obese are often derided, shamed and blamed for their misery, but Guardian Health Editor Sarah Boseley uses The Shape We’re In as a vehicle to argue that obesity is a product of an ‘obesogenic environment’ which must be confronted.
As Boseley explains, the problem affects more than just handful of grotesquely ill patients like Georgia. Obesity – now classified as a disease by the American Medical Association – is widespread and heart disease and stroke (both closely associated with obesity) are the two leading causes of death worldwide. When two-thirds of Britons are overweight and a quarter are obese, overweight becomes the new normal.
Boseley proposes that the problem began in the 1980s when market deregulation released ‘Big Food’ and ‘Big Soda’ from responsibility to public health. A significant chunk of The Shape We’re In is dedicated to illustrating the extent to which our eating habits have been distorted since; in the last 25 years, snacking has gone from non-existence to normalised behaviour, junk food advertising is omnipresent, buffet restaurants make overeating a competitive sport, sweets are stacked seductively at supermarket checkouts and special offers push us to double the food we consume. This is what it means to live in an obesogenic environment. Boseley may not succeed in changing every reader’s lifestyle but it is impossible to read The Shape We’re In and remain oblivious to the food industry’s shameless drive to make us gorge.
While Boseley’s criticisms of the junk food and soda industries are well-researched and shocking, The Shape We’re In is thin on scientific detail. Boseley makes a distinction between different fats (the healthiness of the fatty Mediterranean diet is acknowledged) but this book would benefit from a more thorough explanation of the differences between saturated and unsaturated fat, as well as expanding on how effectively an active lifestyle can offset excess consumption of junk food. Boseley may have missed a trick by skimming over the subject of high fructose corn syrup (HRCS); the inescapable artificial sweetener which has benefitted obscenely from generous US corn subsidies.
What is lacking in rigour is made up for in boldness. Boseley does not just dissect the problem but also proposes fierce solutions. She attacks the diet industry for thriving on poor health and offering false hope and she derides flimsy responses to the obesity epidemic, such as optional labelling of nutritional information or the Department of Health’s Change4Life campaign (as opposed to the controversial but powerful 1987 Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign). Instead she puts forward a strong case for compulsory nutritional labelling and a ‘fat tax’ or ‘sugar tax’, using the 2013 Mexican soda tax as a case study; after Mexico became the fattest country in the world, President Peña Nieto introduced 10% tax on sugary drinks accompanied by a billboard campaign warning parents that giving children soda was dangerous and irresponsible.
Of course there will be resistance from the food industry. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organisation described the problem: “It’s not just Big Tobacco anymore. Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda and Big Alcohol. All of these industries fear regulation and protect themselves by using the same tactics, including lobbying, lawsuits, promises of self-regulation and industry-funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt.” In order to achieve the regulations which Boseley proposes are necessary to combat obesity and save lives, there must be a change in attitude; junk food and soda should be widely recognised as a threat to public health. She describes Coca-Cola sponsoring the London 2012 Olympic Games as being as absurd as tobacco giants sponsoring the London 1948 Olympics.
Sarah Boseley has authored a book which manages to be sympathetic but furious, eye-opening and frightening and yet barely veers into sensationalism. You will finish The Shape We’re In equipped to recognise how eating habits are manipulated and perhaps ready to add your voice to the campaign against fast food and soda.