Posted by: ezzakazhall | January 25, 2013

The “body police” in review

policeman I started this blog back in June last year as part of a current affairs assignment for journalism school. I chose the topic of worldwide governmental and corporate anti-obesity interventions, as it’s one that’s close to my heart – but not for the reasons you may think.

I have not succeeded in losing a large fraction of my body weight through a restrictive diet programme or reality show, nor do I have a child who desperately needs to slim down or else I shall outlive her by several years. No, I did not start this blog because I am passionate about preventing obesity in our future generations – this blog was intended as a critique of the obesity interventions, and to examine the weightloss culture in which they exist.

This blog proved to be challenging for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as a bigger person, I find much of the anti-obesity rhetoric bandied about in the media quite upsetting. It’s not exactly pleasant knowing some jurisdictions have launched a war
in order to “cure” people of my size and shape. In addition, I am always discouraged to read articles in the media that are derisive of the overweight (such as this one in the NZ Herald), and the cruel comments from Joe and Jane Public one can find in response to these pieces – which seem to go unmoderated. But, our tutor warned us this is not to be a “ranting blog”. So, I took a few deep breaths, wiped my brow and attempted to keep ranting to a minimum! I did wonder at times why I hadn’t gone for a “nicer” blog topic, such as weddings and the New Zealand economy, or the price of designer cheeses.

Secondly, I am a follower of many Fat Acceptance blogs and am a firm believer in the Health At Every Size Manifesto– and I know from research done by Fat Acceptance activists and from my own research that a high body weight and poor health are not mutually exclusive, and neither are thinner bodies and good health. I am aware, however, that journalism requires me to present a fair, balanced and unbiased report, regardless of my own personal convictions. Therefore, I made sure to look at both sides of the issue at hand, and also examine the intent and reasoning behind the obesity intervention I was discussing, as well as casting a critical eye over it and discussing why I felt it was problematic. I also made sure that if I was to flat-out disagree with the intervention in question, I would provide an article or published study to back up my statements. I also made an effort (well, I hope so) to post articles with a range of different viewpoints, in addition to the main article I was discussing.

When I first set up my Google Alerts for this blog (under the categories of “obesity and politics”, “obesity and Government” and “obesity and New Zealand”), I was not at all surprised to see the articles rolling into my Inbox thick and fast! From having been following the Fat Acceptance movement since about 2011, and before that when I worked for the Ministry of Health here in New Zealand from 2007, I was aware that governments worldwide were launching initiatives to combat the obesity “epidemic”. Both to curb health care costs, to reduce the risks of diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, sleep apnoea and joint problems, and to save lives. This despite:

* insistence from experts that there is no obesity epidemic
* studies have shown that healthy habits (such as five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, and moderate exercise three times a week) lead to healthy bodies, regardless of weight
* the fact that thin people can also find themselves at risk of “obesity-related” illnesses due to poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle and fat around the internal organs
* the American Diabetes Association stating that “most overweight people never develop type 2 diabetes, and many people with type 2 diabetes are at a normal weight or only moderately overweight.”
* evidence of the “Obesity Paradox”, which shows that larger people with chronic conditions fare better and live long than their thin counterparts with the same conditions; and
* evidence that shows that there is a link between “obesity-related” illnesses and societal stigma about weight.

So, I was never short of fodder for my blog. The greatest number of articles on obesity and government/politics came out of Western democracies, most predominantly the US, Australia and New Zealand and, to a lesser extent, the UK and Canada. However, a handful of Eastern and African nations, such as South Africa, Kuwait, Dubai and Turkey, were also launching anti-obesity initiatives. For this blog, I tried to focus as much as possible on New Zealand content (given I am a New Zealand journalist in training, I considered it was important to become as familiar as possible with how our media is covering a subject I’m passionate about). I also included several US stories, given America’s influence as a world power (as can be seen in my last post, New Zealand seems keen to follow in the US’ footsteps in terms of Coca Cola advertisements with an anti-obesity message).

Alerts came in on a whole range of topics – everything from obese adults in the US requiring counselling to a recent NZ Herald article on obese people being more likely to die in car accidents, according to research. Over the year, probably the most common topics that I was alerted to were New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas, the US Food and Drug Administration approving the first obesity drug in 13 years and many posts on the topic of childhood obesity, particularly in the wake of Let’s Move!, a programme aimed a reducing obesity in US children, spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama. For New Zealand, one of the most common themes was the Australia New Zealand Obesity Society granting the NZ Government the Couch Potato Award (which I spoke more about in this post) for lack of leadership in preventing obesity. Additionally, I came across many articles that ran counter to the anti-obesity argument (either stating the anti-obesity initiatives are inefficient and ineffective, or that they contribute to stigma against the overweight) – most common were articles about New Zealand’s first Fat Pride Conference and the Danish Government scrapping its tax on fatty foods. But for the articles in support of anti-obesity initiatives, the “method behind the madness” was to reduce health costs, prevent disease and save lives.

In the end, I made 15 large blog posts (well, 16 – I covered two topics in depth in one post) on topics that caught my eye and that I found the most interesting. From looking over those posts, I found they fell within four distinct themes: childhood obesity, advertising and sponsorship, support for the obese and access to healthy options and discrimination against the overweight. I shall discuss each of these in turn.

Childhood obesity

I discussed this topic from both a New Zealand, Australian and US perspective. The first post I did on this blog, “Veggies with that?”, talked about the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act 2012, stemming from the Let’s Move! programme, which requires all school lunches to be served with at least one piece of fruit or a vegetables, and for children to bring fruit and vegetables in their “packed” lunches. In my commentary on the article, I agreed it was important for young children to get the nutrients they need in the form of fruit and vegetables, but questioned if it was the role of Government to legislate kids’ school lunches, and how can a requirement like this be policed.

From a New Zealand perspective, my blog of September 15 2012, “We’re taking you down town, obesity!”, I examined a NZ Herald editorial piece by National MP Dr Paul Hutchison (also a former obstetrician and gynaecologist), who spoke of “arresting” obesity at birth. Meaning, that “an optimal start in life” and “hardwiring healthy habits from birth” is the key to preventing obesity in childhood, and then stretching on into adulthood. I examined some of the ways which could ensure a baby’s optimal health (as Dr Hutchison was vague as to his own suggestions), such as breastfeeding, feeding a baby natural produce rather than pre-packaged baby foods (which can be high in sugar and sodium), and making sure a mother, while pregnant, keeps her diet as healthy as possible. However, I also mentioned that breastfeeding can be difficult for some mothers and babies, that it is cheaper (for some families) to feed babies pre-packaged foods and that the physical complications of pregnancy are not necessarily conducive to healthy diet and exercise.

I discussed the issue again on a later post, “Promotions (or lack thereof) and babies (fat ones)”, after a Dominion Post article said research found that “Babies that were premature, small, overdue, first-born and whose mothers had severe morning sickness were more at risk of becoming overweight in adulthood.” The medical specialist quoted, however, was vague about how these conclusions were reached. The specialist suggested “targeted education for women in their reproductive years about the effects of being fat on unborn babies, a better understanding of optimal nutrition in pregnancy, and better awareness of overfeeding small babies past early infancy.”

Probably one of the harsher measures to combat childhood obesity I came across were authorities in Victoria, Australia removing obese children from their homes, which I discussed on my blog “Out of the frying pan…into the foster care fire.” Turns out, the removal of obese children from their families was supported by the American Medical Association, and the removal of overweight children from a Scottish family was threatened by UK authorities in 2011. On that post, I quoted this article, which stated that children placed in foster care have higher rates of emotional and behavioral disorders, earn less money later in life, and can be more troubled than those who remained with their families. Said the author, “we’d be swapping overweight kids for thin kids with serious psychological disorders.”

Advertising

In many of the “alerts” I received, advertising was a huge focus – in that TV advertising of fatty and sugary foods needs to be limited (or stopped altogether), especially where children are concerned. For my second post, “Taking the Mickey out of junk food – and fat kids?”, I talked about the Disney Corporation’s plans to cut advertising of sugary cereals, fast foods and soda on its children’s TV and radio channels, and launch “fun public service announcements” promoting healthy food and exercise to kids. I supported the company commitment to kids’ health – but was suspicious, as Disney had previously launched a ride at one of its theme parks that demonised larger people.

More recently, I blogged about Coca Cola’s recently launched anti-obesity ads in the US. I mentioned that these ads and Coca Cola had been panned, with critics claiming that the ads were “deceitful” and disingenuous, and were merely Coke going into “damage control” for its role in contributing to obesity. At present, Coca Cola Amatil is considering running similar ads in New Zealand.

In my blog of August 2, “Baby, it’s toxic inside…”, I wrote about the graphic advertising campaign endorsed by the Western Australia Government, taking the viewer inside the “stomach” of an overweight person. These ads were heavily criticised by Australian eating disorder specialist Lydia Jade Turner, who stated that “fear-based messages could inadvertently encourage weight and shape concerns, a simplistic view of weight and health, and weight stigma” and that messages about weight control can be harmful, for young people in particular.

I also made two posts, “Some sporting good junk”, and Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Mac?”, which talked about the London Assembly’s and a New Zealand nutritionist’s (respectively) concerns about McDonald’s sponsorship of the Olympics.

Access and support

A question that keeps coming up for me is what can Governments do to improve people’s access to healthier food options and affordable exercise regiems. Here is New Zealand, for example, we have the Green Prescription, which can secure discounts to gyms and pools, the Push Play initiative and nationwide community gardens and orchards.

This article (and some others I’ve seen) suggested the New Zealand Government remove GST from fruit and vegetables, so that they are cheaper for lower income families (and the cost of fruit and veg in NZ has increased significantly in the past couple of years). The current National Government does not plan on doing this. In this post , I talked about an the Wellington City Council Pacific Advisory Group’s plan to plant fruit trees in a Strathmore playground (I wrote the linked articles about the fruit trees for class), so that lower-income families can get healthy snacks for free. Said PAG’s Fetuolemoana Tamapeau, who I interviewed, “Our politicians should not be arguing about our kids getting healthy food.”

In this post, I explored (among other things), the issue of a “fat tax”, which could (in the opposite effect to GST fruit and veg) discourage people from purchasing fatty and high calorie foods. I have seen this solution proposed to the NZ Government several times. However, in my post, I discussed the problem with the Danish fat tax (the world’s first), how it was not an economically viable solution, it caused stress for farmers and retailers and it resulted in Danes popping across the border to buy their favourite treats more cheaply.

Regarding the question of support for the obese, in my blog of October 3, I discussed the Government possibly helping to provide treatment services for overweight individuals with an addiction to food. At the time, the National Addiction Centre suggested that a large number of Kiwis struggle with compulsive overeating (and thus are overweight/obese), but receive no Government-funded support. I agreed with publicly-funded treatment – but pointed out that those with smaller bodies can also struggle with food addiction.

Discrimination

Finally, I did several posts about something that worldwide governments don’t appear to be doing much of – and that is protecting the rights of the overweight who face discrimination in their daily life. Or at least, if they, or other activists, do attempt to bar such discrimination, their efforts are met with criticism and suspicion.

A prime example was a move by members of the UK Government to criminalise to criminalise discrimination based on body size and appearance, which I discussed here. It’s plan to amend the British Equality Act to make weight-related discrimination punishable by law, along with discrimination based on sex, race and sexual orientation, was cooly received by the media. I noted on my blog that a new law may be difficult to enforce – but hoped the subject raised awareness about the damage caused by discriminatory behavior, especially considering the link between weight-related stigma and poor health (see this study, which I linked to above).

On September 1, I blogged about the fact that America’s overweight and obese have almost no voice in Government, despite being a substantial voting block (more than one third of adult Americans are classed as obese). In the same post, I mentioned discrimination against the overweight (particularly women) in the American workplace, and that studies have found that size-related prejudice is as prevalent as racism in the US.

In this blog, I wrote about German research (published on Stuff.co.nz) which found that larger employees were less likely to be hired or considered for a promotion. While I found the research methodology problematic, I was concerned that overweight New Zealanders turned down for jobs on the basis of size would not be able to pursue legal action, as discrimination based on size and appearance is not punishable under our human rights legislation.

Finally, in my blog titled “Of talkshows, fat presidents and elephants in the room”, I wrote about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
, following his controversial interview with Barbara Walters. It has been suggested that Governor Christie will not be voted US President (for which he plans to run in 2016) as many Americans believe he will not handle the job due to his “poor health”. This despite the fact he has not demonstrated any major health problems (save for asthma) and has had a very active career as a lawyer, lobbyist and US Attorney for the District of New Jersey.

As a conclusion, I have enjoyed keeping this blog for the most part, and hope to continue with it once I finish my journalism course. It has been an emotionally-draining experience, given my attachment to the subject and my own weight-related struggles. But still I have learnt much, both from those who support and promote anti-obesity interventions, and those that oppose them. I continue to be perplexed that anti-obesity initiatives continue despite evidence of the tenuous link between weight and health, saddened that the overweight get very little support and protection from our lawmakers and politicians, and disgusted by the prejudiced and callous attitudes of commenters I see online. Yet, I am encouraged when I see people who oppose these interventions, and believe they are, in fact, harmful standing up and making their views known.

It will be interesting if, at any time in my future journalism career, I have to write about an anti-obesity initiative. I wonder how I will handle it, and if I will be able to write a fair and balanced article without being clouded by my emotions and beliefs and my critical attitude to such interventions. As I often said in my blog posts…time will tell.

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Posted by: ezzakazhall | January 23, 2013

It’s not the Coke…it’s how we’re drinking the Coke…

Full of crap They say that when America sneezes, the world gets a cold. Well, it certainly appears as though New Zealand has caught America’s raging anti-obesity influenza.

This article appeared in the NZ Herald the other day. It appears that Coca-Cola Amatil New Zealand may be adopting anti-obesity television advertisments, similar to those broacast by Coca-Cola in the US. The Otago Daily Times ran a similar article.

The Herald article reads:

“The soft drink giant this week aired a two-minute television ad in the United States which notes all calories that are not burned off by consumers, including those in its namesake soft drink, contribute to weight gain

Coca-Cola Oceania spokesman Josh Gold said the company was evaluating the US campaign’s relevance to the New Zealand market.

‘We’re going to take a look at it and see its impact and discuss it,’ he said.

Coca-Cola Amatil’s outgoing New Zealand managing director George Adams said yesterday there was a ‘strong possibility’ similar advertisements would screen here soon.”

The advertisement released in the US themselves can be viewed here. Following the release of the ads, Coca Cola has found itself in the centre of a media storm, and has copped much criticism. For example, the Huffington Post published an article quoting food journalist Mark Bittman, who claimed the ads were “deceitful”. “It’s up to us to remember that Coke makes its money selling sugar-sweetened beverages, and even when they’re apologizing for that, as they appear to be doing here — they’re still selling them,” he told the publication. The article went on to say, “Detractors point out that it’s a bit disingenuous to brag about cleaning up a problem that they were the source of: Who started selling sugary sodas in school to begin with? Who started selling larger containers with more than one portion?” Damage control, in other words.

Popular feminist publication Jezebel was also very critical of the advertisement. The writer claims that while Coca Cola is obviously trying to be caring and socially responsible by contributing to the anti-obesity dialouge but, in actual fact, by reminding consumers of all the low calorie products it produces, the company still has dollar signs in their eyes. Says the writer, “What’s weird is this: Coke is not obligated to discuss obesity…But by doing so, Coca-Cola is attempting to appear caring and responsible. When all the corporation really cares about is cash. It’s reminiscent of the low tar cigarette ads in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s like hey, this thing will kill you, but not as bad as this other thing will kill you. So keep on buying!” The Jezebel articles links to a Youtube “parody” of the advertisement, in which the changed voiceover states that even Coke’s “low calorie” products can lead to serious health problems (obesity, kidney damage and rotting teeth, among others) and that anyone wanting to lead a healthy lifestyle should not be consuming any Coke merchandise. The parody is here.

Coca Cola, by the looks of things, seems pretty non-plussed. In response to some of the media flack, the corporation, in a prepared statement said, “Obesity is complex, and it requires partnership and collaboration to help solve it. We have an important role to play in the effort to find solutions that work for everybody.” As far as I can see, it hasn’t pulled the ads. And now, Coca Cola Amatil all the way down the bottom of the world in New Zealand wants to follow suit.

It will be interesting to see what CCA’s advertisements will be like, and how the New Zealand public will respond to them. So far, I have not yet seen any advertisements on television addressing obesity as a public health issue. There have been many, many advertisements for programmes such as Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and Kate Morgan, for products with nutritional value that are supposedly meant to help with weight management (such as Special K) and for programmes encouraging fitness, such as Push Play (which I’ve spoken about before). I’ve not seen any ads that encourage New Zealanders not to eat certain foods (unless they are for one of the aforementioned diet programmes) – but not in the context of curbing a nationwide health issue, in the same way that ads discouraging tobacco use, heavy drinking (such as the It’s Not The Drinking, It’s How We’re Drinking campaign) and dangerous driving are. So, I suppose time will tell how Kiwis will react to a set of advertisements flat out telling them not to consume the empty calories in Coke products, as they’ll gain weight. Especially with Coke products still on the market, and very easily accessible.

As far as the US situation is concerned, I don’t know if Coca Cola has pulled any other advertisements for its products now that the anti-obesity ads are screening, or if it still running them as per normal. On TV here in New Zealand, it’s very unusual not to come across ads for Coke products, particularly for the original Coca cola. These ads feature healthy, active young people enjoying life, cuddly polar bears and even Santa Claus at Christmas. Hardly synonymous with obesity. So, it will be also interesting to see how Kiwis react to an anti-obesity message from a company that continues to broadcast feel-good advertisements (and use thin and glamourous women, as its done for some time) to sell a product.

I also can’t help wondering…what next? If CCA is going to be sanctioning ads with an anti-obesity message, then how many other companies that market foods that may contribute to weight gain will be following suit? Will, for example, Cadbury and Whittakers be replacing their feel-good ads (such as this one with Nigella Lawson ) with a warning to cut down on their delicious treats? What about Mainland Cheese, with its famous “Good Things Take Time” ads? What about energy drinks? Beer? Full-cream pasta sauce? Even canned food, which may contain chemicals that contribute to weight again? If you attach warnings to one product, shouldn’t be be consistent in our approach? Or are we, by cautioning consumers away from one product while running warm and fuzzy ads for another, just assigning moral values to particular foods and beverages?

I’ll leave you with this NZ Herald editorial, which I think says it better than I can. Says the writer:

“By and large these Coke programmes promote a narrow view of what health is (to be a healthy body weight), how it may be achieved (individual healthy lifestyle choices) and at the same time ignores the wider determinants of children’s health, such as poverty, government policy, and corporate advertising. A child’s fatness is treated as a consequence of simply making the “wrong” (greedy and lazy) choices. The message from Coke is if you’re fat or unhealthy, it’s your own – or your parents’ – fault.

The unhealthy consequence is fat children are excessively monitored, and blamed, stigmatised, even bullied for being fat ‘on purpose’…

Through discussions and debates we can question Coke’s views on obesity, challenge the assumption that ‘fat=lazy=unhealthy’, learn how others view health, and even take action to improve those wider influences on children’s health.

This is one way school communities could make a real difference to children’s health, rather than doing what Coke wants us to do: buy their products and blame ourselves.”

Can’t say I disagree there.

Posted by: ezzakazhall | January 22, 2013

Of talkshows, fat presidents and elephants in the room

chris-christie-meme I can’t quite believe I am making reference to Barbara Walters on this blog. But, it is related to the goverment theme, so bear with me.

Ms Walters recently interviewed New Jersey Governor and Republican presdential hopeful Chris Christie on her show “Barbara Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People” – which featured an uncomfortable discussion about the Governor’s weight, and how this will supposedly impact his ability as future President of the United States.

Their conversation went something like this:

BW: I feel very uncomfortable asking this question when I’m sitting opposite you, but you are a little overweight.
CC: More than a little.
BW: …Why?
CC: If I could figure that out, I’d fix it.
BW: There are people who say you couldn’t be president because you’re so heavy. What do you say to them?
CC: That’s ridiculous…I don’t know what the basis for that is.
BW: I think they’re worried about your health.
CC: I’ve done this job pretty well, and I think people have been watching me for the last number of weeks in Hurricane Sandy — doing 18-hour days, then getting up and being just as effective in the job — so I don’t think that would be a problem.

A video clip of their conversation cab be found here.

One of my first thoughts upon reading about this was that asking about someone’s weight, regardless of their public status, falls within the same bracket as “asking a lady her age”. It’s not done, especially not on national television. I don’t consider weight it to be anyone’s business, and certainly none of Barbara Walters’. Then again, no-one can accuse her of being unaware of the public scrutiny around the Governor’s waistline.

Since 2011, when Governor Christie first indicated he may make a bid for the White House, news outlets and political commentators have debated whether his size would affect his ability to run a country, and if Americans would vote for an obese candidate. Writers for The Washington Post, ABC News, NYMAG.com, Bloomberg (a particularly inflammatory piece) and Seattle Pi, among others, all “weighed in” on the issue. Reasons chucked around as to why Governor Christie’s girth would not earn him votes were:

* His weight will undermine his message of “spending cuts and belt tightening”, if he looks like he “enjoys a good meal and can’t tighten his own belt”
* His weight shows a lack of self-discipline and, if he can’t control his sugar intake and portion size, then he’s a bad example for ordinary American’s
* The public judges the overweight harshly, and still buy into the stereotype that fat people are lazy and inactive – and the fact that larger people find it harder to get and keep jobs even in this modern era is proof of this
* Society still attributes a lack of moral fibre to those who are unable to “reign in” their weight
* He won’t “look good on television”, due to his size; and
* Because Governor Christie is allegedly at risk for a multitude of health problems, he’s just “too unhealthy” to handle the duties expected of the US President.

So, Ms Walters is certainly capitalising on public interest here. Predictably, her interview with Governor Christie resulted in a media backlash. However, judging by some of the comments made in responses to articles by The Washington Post and The Huffington Post…the theorists may well be correct. There were several commenters that were supportive of Governor Christie, but many, many others who stated that he would not be a suitable POTUS candidate, as he’s just too fat, too sick, it’ll be too stressful on his body, and he just won’t look good on television. Before he even considers running for POTUS, they say, he should get bariatric surgery first. Or go on The Biggest Loser as a contestant.

The fact that the American public seems so adverse to voting for a fat President isn’t entirely surprising. It took until 2008 for the US to vote for a black President, for example. They have voted in only one President with a physical disability – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had polio. They have never seen a Hispanic, Asian, Native American (with the exception of Charles Curtis, who was Vice President), Jewish, openly gay or female President. Or an atheist President, for that matter. The only significantly overweight president was William Howard Taft – but he left office in 1913, well before the modern age of television. So…I’m not entirely sure if Americans are genuinely concerned about his “inability” to manage in the White House, or are simply intolerant to anything, in our appearance-obsessed society, that veers too far from the mainstream.

Several posts ago , I talked about the link between a high body weight and ill health – which studies have shown is not as cut and dried as once believed. As I mentioned in that post (and others), healthy habits have been found to be an better indicator of health than body size, thinner people can also be in poor health, thin people are prone to the same diseases as fat people and fat people have been found to fare better in the face of chronic illnesses than their smaller counterparts. So, when it comes to Governor Christie, those who oppose him on the grounds of body size, can’t fall back on the ill health excuse. Apart from asthma, for which he was recently hospitalised for a brief period , the Governor does not appear to have any major health problems. In fact, in the above article, he was quoted as saying that he has been found healthy by “all the normal indicators.”

As for his career, Governor Christie has had a busy time of things. His Wikipedia entry (linked at the start of the post) tells us more but, so far, he has worked as a partner in a New Jersey law firm, was a lobbyist with the same law firm, ran for the New Jersey Assembly, was US Attorney for the District of New Jersey (where he was praised for his high rate of corruption convictions), was a top fundraiser for George W Bush’s 2000 election campaign, has served as New Jersey Governor since 2010 which included, as stated in his interview with Barbara Walters, seeing the state through Hurricane Sandy. I do not doubt that the role of POTUS may come with a bit more stress and responsibility. But, this career has shown him to be capable of holding down some extremely demanding vocations, in spite of his physical stature and issues with asthma. Certainly not what one might expect from a lazy and inactive person.

From reading about Governor Christie’s politics, I cannot say that I would vote for him, were I an American. I am more liberal in my sensibilities, and often find myself at odds with the Republican Party ethos. And I would hope, come 2016, if Governor Christie does run for the White House, that Americans vote for the candidate whose policies they believe are best for country. Not on the basis of appearance or perceived health risks of which they have no proof. If America can forgive a President who publicly lied about his sexual dalliances with his intern, then surely they can give a larger man a chance at the White House? Only time will tell.

Posted by: ezzakazhall | January 21, 2013

Free fruit for all?

 

eating-strawberryIn my last post, I mentioned the Voxy article, which had found that 19% of children from deprived New Zealand communities were obese, compared with only 3% of those in wealthier neighbourhoods.

The article mentioned several solutions for reducing obesity among children – some I agreed with, some not so much. One of the solutions suggested was “making healthy food the easy option for all New Zealanders, through subsidies or removing GST on fruit and vegetables” (the other half of that was a tax on sugary and fatty foods – which I do not agree with, as I explained on my last post).

While I do not necessarily believe that obesity and ill health are mutually exclusive (which you will see from previous posts I’ve made), it is correct that some healthier options are more expensive, particularly for lower income families. For example, in 2011, the cost of fruit and vegetables in New Zealand increased by 16 percent. At that time tomatoes cost $13.25 per kg, and lettuce was $9.40 per kg. Last year, according to Statistics New Zealand’s Food Price Index, fruit and vege prices continues to rise. Fruit prices rose by 11% overall. While lettuce and broccoli decreased in price, tomatoes rose in price by 26%, avocados by 33% and kumara by 90%. While, as mentioned earlier, lettuce decreased in price, the average price was still $5.21 per kg (I mentioned this to my husband, and his response was, “that better be a damn good lettuce”). So, for low income families struggling to make ends meet, $22.85 (in 2011) is a lot for your basic, garden variety Kiwi salad.

Late last year, I was fortunate to meet Fetuolemoana Tamapeau of Wellington City Council’s Pacific Advisory Group, who, along with her PAG colleagues, had a dream of planting fruit tress in the Taiaroa St Play area in Strathmore. Strathmore (where I lived for a time) is a strangely divided suburb. At the bottom of the hill is Scots College, an expensive boys’ private school, at the top of the hill are several wealthy subdivisions with large opulent houses. In between, however, are State Housing blocks. The Taiaroa St playground is right across the street from a large State Housing area – so Fetu’s plan was to for the planned fruit trees to be a source of free healthy snacks for the local kids, many of whom are from low income families.

When I interviewed Fetu about the fruit trees, she mentioned that there’d been arguments among the New Zealand Government about removing GST from fruit and vegetables. She is correct that this has been a topic for debate among our politicians for several years – and, in 2010, the Labour Party (the Opposition) announced that it planned to axe GST from fruit and veg, saving the average family around $300-$400 a year. To which National Government Finance Minister Bill English responded, “It’s never going to end, is it? It’s fruit and vegetables today, frozen peas tomorrow… vegetables in hamburgers sold in McDonald’s – that’s healthy”. in 2011, Health Minister Tony Ryall said the current Government has no plans to remove GST from fruit and veg, stating in this NZ Herald Article that, “The increase in GST has been compensated for through personal tax cuts so we’re not going to move on and take GST off food.”

Fetu told me in the interview that she couldn’t understand why our politicians are arguing over the simple fact that our children and communities need healthy food, and that there should not be barriers when it comes to families being able to access healthy and nutritious options. Hence the purpose of the trees: kids can visit their favourite hang-out spot and get a free snack, that may be otherwise too expensive to buy a lot of at the supermarket. Without any intervention needed from our Parliamentarians.

I wrote an article on Fetu’s plan for the trees – which was published in The Wellingtonian and on NewsWire, our school news site. As it turns out, Fetu and the PAG are currently in discussion with Wellington City Council about planting the trees in the Taiaroa Street playground, and she indicated that things were looking positive. So, with any luck, I will have a new article to write on the PAG’s plans, hopefully with good news to report.

I wanted to make this post because I am encouraged that our local councils are making it easier, through initiatives like the possible Strathmore fruit trees, community gardens and community orchards, for families and communities to access healthful and natural food options. In an age where supermarket prices keep skyrocketing, and our Parliamentarians can’t seem to make up their mind.

Posted by: ezzakazhall | January 15, 2013

Smoking vs Obesity! Who’ll take out the championship?!

smoking

“Oh well. At least I’m not fat.

Happy New Year, good readers. My apologies for a severe dearth of posts of late – last term at school was nothing if not frantically busy. Hoping to post a bit more regularly over the next few weeks.

For my first post of 2013, I will be discussing this piece I found on Stuff Nation the other day. Stuff Nation is a recent phenomenon – basically, it gives Joe and Jane Public the chance to publish articles and editorials about local and national issues they consider important. No journalistic training required. Kind of like blogging with a byline, you could say. Or citizen journalism, as my tutor likes to call it. And I, for one, have no issue with this kind of citizen journalism. However, I am slightly bothered that it allows the kind of article linked above to see the light of day.

Basically, the author believes (and he is entitled to his beliefs, of course) that the New Zealand Government, specifically Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia, is focussing too much on cultivating a “Smoke-Free New Zealand”, when it should be directing its energies towards preventing obesity. Because, according to his sources, more New Zealanders die from obesity-related illness than die as a result of tobacco consumption or the effects of second-hand smoke. Says the author, “the Health Minister never mentions the 8500 New Zealanders who die every year from a poor diet – over double the amount killed from tobacco consumption, and 21 times the amount killed from environmental tobacco smoke. She does not mention the 3250 New Zealanders who die every year from being fat, or the 1500 who perish from a lack of vegetables, nor the 2500 couch potatoes who die from insufficient physical activity.” 

(I am slightly suspicious as to where this gentleman got his statistics. He says he obtained them from Ministry of Health reports. If he’d provided the links to said reports and studies, I might be inclined to take him a bit more seriously.)

If we take the side of the author, there is evidence to suggest that the New Zealand Government does not appear overly concerned about the supposed obesity “epidemic”. For example, in October 2012, our Government was granted the Couch Potato Award by the Australia and New Zealand Obesity Society, for its “weak leadership” in reducing obesity in New Zealanders. In the linked article in the NZ Herald, the Society claimed that the New Zealand Government’s health promotion is poor, that it has provided concessions to the processed food industry, and that is has defunded obesity-awareness programmes such as Healthy Eating, Healthy Action and moved away from enforcing healthy eating programmes in schools. Health Minister Tony Ryall dismissed the Couch Potato Award as a publicity stunt and, despite claiming that the New Government has, in fact, made an effort to improve Kiwis’ health, doesn’t seem to be taking any further action on improving our health outcomes following been “given” the award.

This Voxy article highlights the extreme inequalities in health outcomes between wealthy and deprived communities in New Zealand – for example 19% of children in lower-socioeconomic areas are obese, compared with only 3% of children in wealthier areas. One suggestion made in the article was improving accessibility of healthful food options to all New Zealanders, either through Government subsidies or by removing GST from fruit and vegetables. However, as far as I am aware, the current Government does not seem in a rush to help Kiwis access healthy choices.  Nor does it seem in any rush to solve New Zealand’s child poverty problem. 

So, there’s that to consider. However, my quibbles with the Stuff Nation piece are as follows:

1) I feel very uneasy about the type of argument used here – what is often referred to in social justice communities as a “derailment”. Ie “why are we trying to fix this major problem, when we should be focusing on a supposed even bigger problem? Reminds me very much of arguments I’ve seen, where people have asked why we’re worrying about women’s issues when there’s starving children in Africa, and why is the Government spending all this time trying to encourage marriage equality when unemployment is so high? The writer claims that more people die from “obesity-related illnesses” than from those caused by tobacco – but 5000 deaths from smoking is reasonably significant, when you consider we’ve only a population of 4.8 million.

2) The author mentions the thousands of people who die from “being fat”, die from poor diet and die from not getting enough exercise. However, some studies have shown that slim and “normal weight” people are also at risk from the same illnesses as those who are overweight. This New York Times piece talks about the “obesity paradox” – in which overweight and obese patients with chronic conditions fare better than thinner people with the same conditions. The article notes that A) diabetes patients of normal weight are twice as likely to die as those who are overweight or obese, B) overweight dialysis patients had a higher chance of survival than smaller patients and C) larger people with heart problems fared better than thin people with the same heart problems. So, if we look at this article – we can see that not only do thin people get the same diseases as fat people, but that fat people seem less likely to die from said diseases. This Huff Post article also talks about the high rates of pre-diabetes and coronary risk factors in “normal weight” children in the US.

3) The title of article is problematic – “ban obesity”. Essentially what he’s saying is that the New Zealand Government should ban what is pretty much just a body size – based on a fundamentally flawed system of calculations. As I pointed out on this post, several of our top athletes, including Valerie Adams and most of the All Blacks’ front row, are technically obese on the BMI chart. Should tall, muscular people with large frames (the BMI system takes into account neither bone density nor muscle mass) also make the author’s blacklist, if he’s using the BMI to measure obesity?

As the author fails to suggest exactly how New Zealand can “ban” this body size, I would assume he is referring to state-sanctioned restrictions on those products that supposedly contribute to obesity and placing a tax on high-calorie foods. Problem is, the Danish Government attempted to impose a tax on “unhealthy foods” not long ago -which saw the prices of some items (including specialty cheeses) rise by 25%. This Economist article tells us more. The same fat tax was scrapped by the Danish Government last year, after it was found that Danes were crossing the border into neighbouring countries to buy their favourite treats at lower prices. So, we can see from this example that people can get around high taxes if they want particular items badly enough. Plus, as the Economist piece mentioned, the tax ended up being cumbersome for retailers and played havoc with the local economy. While I am all for the New Zealand Government making healthy food options more accessible, I’m not entirely sure if prohibition or higher taxes are to way to go.

4) As I have pointed out on several occasions on this blog, obesity can also be the result of health conditions or medications. For example, according to WebMD, 25% percent of people who take SSRI antidepressants will gain weight. Rapid weight gain can also be the side effect of antipsychotic medications. Would the author suggest banning these potentially living saving medicines? In addition, research has shown that particular eating patterns and tendency towards weight gain is heavily influenced by genetic makeup. So what next – DNA policing?

5) Finally, something that really bothers me about the article is this bit:

“According to a study by the Erasmus University Department of Public Health, smokers save society money because they die younger, and a smoking ban would increase costs as the healthier population eventually moved in to nursing homes and the relatively expensive diseases of old age.”

Obviously, he is saying that, in the long run it would cost the New Zealand health system more if smoking was banned, and tobacco-related diseases decreased in number. Because apparently it’s more expensive if we just let New Zealanders live long, full and healthy lives, so they eventually die of plain and simple old age.

Well, as I have seen from other articles, there is a long-held belief that obesity is linked with diseases such as diabetes, heart problems, strokes and sleep apnoea (there is, in fact, a correlation between obesity and these illnesses, but correlation does not imply causation), all of which have an impact of life expectancy. And, the author states that 3250 Kiwis die from “being fat”, 1500 die from lack of veges, and 2500 who die from being couch potatoes. So, if obesity *does* contribute to life threatening health conditions, and if thousands of Kiwis die from an unhealthy and sedentary lifestyle… then is it not also cheaper to let these people die from their illnesses, and avoid letting them grow old and end up in rest homes, which cost the state more? If we’re applying the same logic as he applies to smoking, then…that’s 7250 people who will die early, and who won’t end up in expensive rest homes. So…why exactly is so he keen to rescue the obese and let the smokers all die out?

Obviously, from reading I have done while researching this blog, I have found that a high body weight and poor health are not necessary the same thing. Several posts ago, I posted a link to this study, which shows that healthy habits are a better indicator of overall health and wellbeing than body size. Conversely, it is possible to be slimmer and in poor health. And, as I said above, studies have shown that larger people with the same chronic conditions as thin people have a better chance of survival than their smaller counterparts. My problem is that the author has quoted numbers of people who supposedly die of obesity…and that it’s a terrible thing that they die every year, but not so terrible that smokers die, because it’s cheaper? Circular logic.

That’s about all I have on this topic. Feel free to leave me a comment if you wish to discuss this more. Will try and update again shortly.

Posted by: ezzakazhall | October 22, 2012

Promotions (or lack thereof) and babies (fat ones)

Hello again. My apologies for having sorely neglected The Body Police over the last couple of weeks. Have had my hands full with exposing rape culture at Victoria University and trying to crack shorthand at 60wpm. One of those has been slightly more successful than the other.

To make up for lost time, here are a couple of wee gems from the New Zealand media I wanted to share, both of which fit in nicely with subjects I’ve already discussed on this blog.

This article appeared on Stuff.co.nz on 6 October. It mentions German research published in the BMC Public Health Journal, which found that body weight is indeed an influencing factor when it comes to considering candidates for a job or a promotion. Of the research, the Stuff article said:

“Involving 127 human resource professionals from a range of industries, participants were shown six photos of individuals differing in ethnicity, gender and body mass index. All subjects in the photos were aged between 40 and 50, and had a higher education. The participants, who regularly made career decisions about other people, were asked questions, including who was most suitable to be short-listed for a supervisor position and who they would not consider for a job.

“When asked who they would not hire, 42 per cent picked the obese woman while 19 per cent said the obese man. The non-ethnic normal-weight woman was least often disqualified from hiring consideration. When it came to a promotion, normal-weight candidates were almost five times more likely to be considered.

“If both obese male and female candidates were compared, the man was more than seven times more likely to be considered.

“The researchers noted that, while there were mild gender and race biases, weight produced by far the largest inequalities.

I will say now I have my suspicions about this research. For example:

1) The subjects in the photos used were between the ages of 40 and 50. Has the research taken prejudice against older workers into account? What kind of results would the researchers get if they displayed photographs of younger people of differing weight? Did they think of testing what an employer would do if they had to choose between a younger overweight person and a slim person who was middle aged?

2) Were participants selected from various European countries, or was the survey confined to Germany? German-based research may not necessarily be applicable across all European states (Spain, for example, is known for a culture of body positivity– for example, it’s Government has banned size zero models from its runways, and Spanish studies showed 7 out of 10 women are happy with their body shape), or other Western democracies. How it would fit into a New Zealand context one would have to find out.

3) If this research was carried out in a country the size of Germany (with a population of 81.8 million), 127 human resources representatives sounds like a pathetically small sample size on which to carry out a survey of this type.

4) Did the researchers consider testing an employer’s reaction to large people they had met in person, as opposed to just testing their reaction to a photograph? How, for instance, would they react to an overweight person who gave an impressive interview, and presented themselves with confidence and poise, as opposed to a normal weight person who lacked confidence? Too taxing to carry out, I suspect.

Aside from these suspicions…I will say that, as a large woman currently studying towards a professional qualification, this research (if it is to be believed) scares me to death. It does sadden me that an employers have and will continue to use body size as a barometer of competence in the workplace. As I said on this post, the US media has explored many cases in which employees have been fired because of their weight, corporations have had policies against hiring anyone with a BMI over 30 and where obese women have earned significantly less than their thin co-workers.

This Daily Mail piece from 2010 reports on a study which shows that overweight workers in the UK are more likely to be bullied at work, less likely to be considered for promotion, and even less likely to be selected for a job – with one in 10 bosses admitting they had turned down an applicant solely on the basis of weight. This more recent Daily Mail piece tells the story of a larger woman (word of advice: don’t read the comments) who has been turned down for 160 jobs on the basis of body size (obviously, her weight was never stated as the reason, plus there is the age factor working against her- but she did say she never had problems finding work until she gained 6 stone, or 38kg.). The article also cited research from the University of Manchester, which showed fat women were far less likely to be selected for a job over their normal-weight rivals.

Here in New Zealand, I have never heard of any cases where a person has not been hired on the basis of body size- at least not any that the media have picked up. In the five years I worked for the New Zealand public service before studying journalism, I worked with and for many overweight people, whose weight had no bearing on their competence, intelligence and management skills. That being said, my major concern is, as I pointed out on my blog of 1 September, that our human rights legislation cannot punish size-related discrimination in the workplace by law. Under the Human Rights Act 1993, discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender, marital status and disability is punishable by law- whereas size-related discrimination is not. So, I worry how much protection an overweight person who faces discrimination in the workplace would be entitled to here in New Zealand.

I will admit that one of the things that disturbed me the most was an old friend’s response when I expressed my concern/disgust about the Stuff article on Facebook. She said it makes sense, as an employer would probably see weight as a measure of “a person’s discipline and control over themselves.” Whether or not she herself believes that, I don’t know- but I did find it upsetting. And also problematic because: A) as I have mentioned many times before, obesity is not solely caused by a “lack of control or discipline” when it comes to diet, B) by that logic, an employer would have to fire or refuse to promote thin person who has struggles with food and C) in the case of a promotion of an overweight person, what would an employer do if a person’s struggle with “discipline” over food (at any weight) had no effect on their work performance whatsoever? Sounds like a justification of prejudice to me.

The second article I wanted to talk about was this one, which appeared in The Dominion Post late week. I won’t speak on this one at length- except that it ties into my blog of 15 September about “hardwiring” healthy habits into young New Zealanders from birth, even from conception. The research from Auckland University quoted in the above DomPo article would certainly support this healthy hardwiring: as apparently a mother’s weight and diet before and during pregnancy can influence the weight of a child in later years. In addition: “Babies that were premature, small, overdue, first-born and whose mothers had severe morning sickness were more at risk of becoming overweight in adulthood.” 

My husband and I had a good laugh when we met my mother-in-law for brunch yesterday. She said my husband was doomed weight-wise, as she lived off orange Frujus and Caramello chocolate when she was pregnant. My Mum lived on custard squares- plus, I was 3 weeks premature and a small baby- and hubby and I are both the firstborn. So, we’re stuffed. However, in all seriousness, the problems I have with the article are:

1) The DomPo did not explore why, or use any quotations from endocrinologist Wayne Cutfield to explain how smaller, premature (though he does touch on the overfeeding issue- though I’m not sure how many premature babies are overfed, and he doesn’t mention any statistics to confirm this), firstborn or babies born to mothers with severe morning sickness are most likely to have weight problems later in life. I, for one, am quite curious to know the scientific reasoning behind this.

2) In stating that a mother’s diet during pregnancy can reprogramme her genes and pass them on to her child, Dr Cutfield says: However, we now know that obese mothers overeat and a significant portion of those calories are being delivered to the baby.”  We do? Statistics? Sources? Were no other factors (such as medication or medical issues) considered during this research?

3) I’d also like to know how Dr Cutfield came to the conclusions that he has done. Has his department at Auckland University monitored and growth and dietary habits of a certain sample of mothers, and caught up with their children later in life? Has it analysed a sample of either firstborn or premature babies to find out if they are, in fact, overweight as teens or adults? Have they surveyed a portion of overweight adults, asking them what their weight at birth was, if their mother had morning sickness and what their mother snacked on while pregnant? Or, were these just facts all found out in a lab? Given the public purse does fund scientific research here in New Zealand, I’m quite keen to find out.

At the end of the article, Dr Cutfield calls for “targeted education for women in their reproductive years about the effects of being fat on unborn babies, a better understanding of optimal nutrition in pregnancy, and better awareness of overfeeding small babies past early infancy.” Which sounds good in theory, for sure- however, as I mentioned on my last post on the topic, a woman’s body can produce all kinds of cravings during pregnancy (such as orange Frujus in my mother-in-law’s case), and physical complications that are not necessarily conducive to maintaining a regular exercise routine.

Education on maintaining healthy habits during pregnancy (for example, the foods with strong nutritional values for both mother and baby, and gentle exercise routines that will not place additional stress on a mother’s body) is certainly important, particularly for women that ordinarily would not have access to such information. So, I’d be supportive of Government-funded programmes that support women in looking after their health while pregnant. My hope is, however, that any such programmes do not use shaming or fear-mongering tactics (like these, for example?) to “encourage” pregnant women to mind their weight. Seeing as pregnancy can be a physically and sometimes emotionally difficult time for a lot of women, the last thing the average kiwi Mum needs is pressure from the Government and the medical profession to mind her waistline.

More later.

Posted by: ezzakazhall | October 3, 2012

I’m Erin, I’m a foodaholic. Hi, Erin.

 This article appeared on the front page of The Dominion Post last week.

It’s an interesting one. In the article, the Director of the National Addiction Centre states that “food addiction” (otherwise known as Compulsive Overeating) needs to be recognised in New Zealand as a medical condition, and that over a third of kiwis could be addicted to food – but receive no support or Government funding.

Says Prof Doug Sellman in the article:

“Like people with methamphetamine, you don’t get the shaking, but it’s the craving, feeling deprived and really needing itIt’s like they need those particular foods as if their lives depended on it. But they don’t; they’ve got their wires crossed.

“The thing with an addiction is whatever self-control you had at the beginning is eroded by the forming of the addictionIt’s a neurological thing.”

Apparently, the National Addiction Centre is conducting a study of 25 people attempting to “beat obesity”.

“Prof Sellman said the participants in the study often failed to control their cravings and if they tried to ditch one of their fixes they would crack.

‘They seem to go into a regressed state and really feel deprived, intensely. It’s like a primitive anger.’

The need for food ‘hijacks’ the brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for the body’s survival instincts – in effect, the brain tricks the body into needing more and more food.”

As far as food addiction itself goes, it’s a subject that has been discussed  by the medical professional and the media on other occasions. For example, the medical site webmd.com discusses the concept of food addiction in detail, noting that the idea has recently got more scientific support. Peer support services, such as Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous (the Wellington Branch is profiled here by one of my Whitireia colleagues) have been assisting people who struggle with compulsive eating for many years. Overeaters Anonymous even uses the same 12 Steps as Alcoholics Anonymous and Al Anon to assist addicts and their families.

This article discusses the addictive properties of fatty and sugary foods, stating (as Prof Sellman in the Dominion Post article already confirmed) that these foods can hijack the brain in ways that resemble addictions to nicotine and harder drugs. Says the authour: “Lab studies have found sugary drinks and fatty foods can produce addictive behavior in animals. Brain scans of obese people and compulsive eaters, meanwhile, reveal disturbances in brain reward circuits similar to those experienced by drug abusers.”  This Daily Mail article quotes experts as saying that those who struggle with Binge Eating Disorder suffer from similar problems as those who compulsively gamble or steal – and that the UK’s medical profession is discussing classifying it as a “behavioural addiction”.

I had two reactions upon reading the Dominion Post piece. Firstly…I’ll admit it was somewhat nice to see some discussion on obesity that touched on the struggles faced by the overweight when it comes to food. You don’t have to be online long these days before you come across a loud chorus of voices saying the obese people are lazy, gluttonous, weak-willed and a drain on society- and that their weight is their fault, and theirs alone. The reactions on http://www.stuff.co.nz to news of New Zealand’s first Fat Conference were a fine example of this. In fact, critics have even argued, both in the US and New Zealand, that government and corporate attempts to eradicate obesity are merely a moral panic against the overweight- which actually leads to poorer outcomes overall (as the Atlantic piece points out, noting weight cycling as one of the dangers).

To be honest, I find it slightly distressing that our society seems to equate large bodies with a lack of willpower and moral failing- and this piece explains it better than I can. So, if the Dominion Post and the National Addiction Centre are to be believed, and if an addiction to food is a contributor to weight problems- then it shows it’s more than a lack of self-control or “laziness” at work here. In the case of food addiction, funding should definitely be allocated to ensure those struggling can access the support they need.

My other reaction? Simple: not all people who struggle with overeating are obese. Neither are all people who are obese struggle with overeating. The WebMD article I linked above states that people of a “normal weight” can also experience food addiction, and theorises that “their bodies may simply be genetically programmed to better handle the extra calories they take in. Or they may increase their physical activity to compensate for overeating.”

This US website, which contains resources for people who think they may have a food addiction, states that: There are many food addicts who are a normal weight. Some of these healthy looking food addicts are bulimic. Others just have a metabolic system that keeps them appearing “normal,” even when they are bingeing abnormally. There is also a small but important group of food addicts who are dangerously thin.” On the flipside, there are people who practice healthy food habits and yet still are overweight. As I mentioned on this blog, studies have shown that practising healthy habits (five servings of fruit and veg a day, 30 minutes exercise, getting enough sleep etc) lead to good health and wellbeing, regardless of weight.

In my opinion, though the Dominion Post article highlighted some important issues…once again, too much focus is being placed on weight. Not only is it extremely stereotypical to suggest that food addiction is a problem for just the obese (without mentioning problems for people of other body weights), it also alienates smaller people struggling with overeating- making them less likely to seek help.

As I said earlier, it does highlight the fact that it’s not just a simple matter of willpower for some people with weight issues. But, what I’d like to see is funding being allocated to support food addicts of all shapes and sizes. Because…they do exist, as a matter of fact.

Posted by: ezzakazhall | September 15, 2012

We’re taking you down town, obesity!

This opinion piece appeared on The New Zealand Herald‘s website on 7 September. The author is Dr Paul Hutchison, a National MP and former obstetrician and gynaecologist.

I will admit I chuckled a bit upon reading the headline. Arrest obesity, you say? I was left with some strange mental images: sticking handcuffs on a lump of adipose fat tissue, bundling a scale showing triple figures into a police car with the sirens blaring. Things like that. Then, it hit me how problematic that headline actually is. The word “arrest” brings up associations with lawlessness and criminal behaviour. One could gauge that, according to Dr Hutchison, obesity is a crime that needs to be clamped in irons and hauled in for questioning. Not the smartest choice of words, I’d say.

As for the content of the piece, Dr Hutchison says he believes that an “optimal start in life” is the key for preventing obesity in New Zealand children, and also to prevent obesity stretching into adulthood. And that healthy habits need to be “hardwired” from birth. He says:

“As a former specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology for over a decade I have stressed to my parliamentary colleagues the profound importance of an optimal environment around conception, antenatally, and postnatally as to how the child will end up – whether it be from a health, education, justice, or social viewpoint.

Sir Peter Gluckman says there is now compelling biological and clinical evidence that those who have a poor start in life have greater risks of developing obesity and non-communicable diseases. He believes the most important political and scientific question is ‘Whose fault is it?’ – to what extent are these diseses a matter of voluntary behaviour and to what extent are they hardwired?

…Current methods for dealing with non-communicable diseases – optimal diet, exercise, and stopping smoking -are not enough… attention has to be paid to what Gluckman describes as developmental hardwiring of appetite control, developmental hardwiring of willingness to exercise, developmental set points for body weight and exercise.

On a surface level, I do believe that the health of New Zealand children is paramount. This report, commissioned by the Ministry of Health, shows that child health indicators are far below where they should be (particularly compared with other OECD nations) and that harmful experiences in the early years can result in poorer health outcomes later in life. So yes, the early years are critical for achievement across a range of fields, including education and employment.

However, Dr Hutchison is vague as to how “the best start in life” can prevent obesity, and on what exactly the best start looks like. When I think of the “best start in life”, I think of a baby with loving parents (this most definitely includes solo parents) who feed, clothe and shelter it appropriately, who protect it from any conceivable harm, who seek support where it’s needed (given it takes a village to raise a child) and who basically tend to its every need. But preventing obesity?

I wondered if breastfeeding was part of this plan, given it is promoted by Government as helping to reduce obesity later than life, as well as other health conditions. However, this is all very well if a mother is able to breastfeed, and there are myriad reasons why a woman cannot- such as difficulty expressing milk, the baby refusing it, medical conditions (for both mother and baby) and certain medications, such as antidepressants. This Psychology Today article tells us more.

Does obesity prevention rest with good dietary habits of activity of the mother while pregnant? Last year, the University of Auckland  conducted a study, mentioned in this article, which showed a link between childhood obesity and the mother’s diet during pregnancy. (My mother had a serious craving for custard squares while pregnant with me. Looks I’m screwed!) However, given pregnancy hormones can lead to all kinds of food cravings (everything from chocolate to curry, peanut butter to olives, from grass to burnt matchsticks), keeping “bad” foods at bay is easier said than done. And as for physical activity, pregnancy comes with many  physical complications, including nausea, back and rib pain, swollen ankles and dizziness- none of which are particularly conducive to exercise. 

The parents’ choice of baby food could be something to think about. This New Zealand website points out the benefits of feeding babies fresh, homemade food, as opposed to pre-packaged baby food.  This US article from a couple of years ago says that 65% of pre-packaged baby foods contain excessive levels of sugar and sodium, with 75% of calories coming from added sugar. This is something for parents to bear in mind, of course. However, for some families, such as those with single parents and working Mums (especially given New Zealand’s low paid parental leave rates and mothers feeling forced back into the workforce), preparing fresh food for their babies is just just one more juggling ball in the game of survival. Plus, in most cases, baby food is cheap- if these Countdown prices are anything to go by.

As for “hardwiring” healthy habits into our next generation- my guess is that he means getting our youngsters practising healthy behaviours from a very young age. The things I have already mentioned, that is breastfeeding, natural baby food and a “healthy” pregnancy, plus introducing infants to daily activity (my sister, aged two, for example, took swimming lessons at about six months old, and is now playing soccer), may be just the ticket. However, as I mentioned before, these solutions are not necessary applicable in all situations, or to all families. Plus, there is still the issue of hereditary obesity, as I mentioned in this post. In these cases, indoctrinating a child into a healthy lifestyle may not be a magic bullet. Also, as I noted here, there are other causes of obesity in adults, despite the practice of healthy behaviour earlier in life.

As is obvious from some of the comments on Dr Hutchison’s article, this gives rise to the classic Government intervention vs. individual choice argument. Libertarianism vs the “Nanny State”. Is it the Government’s role to police our individual food choices and what goes into our children’s mouths? Or, does it keep out of our kitchens, and only have the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff when it all goes “wrong”?

I don’t have the answer to that. But one thing I would like to ask is why are our politicians having this debate when 27,000 Kiwi children are living in poverty? Why are we concerned about indoctrinating our kids into the model of a healthy lifestyle when 27,000 children are coming to school every day without breakfast? What are we doing about the 27,000 children for whom being “healthy” is the least of their concerns…when it pales in comparison to simply staying alive.

Healthy habits are a great thing for families of all ages to practice and, yes, they should be encouraged. However…it was say our politicians have bigger fish to fry in batter and oil.

 

Posted by: ezzakazhall | September 1, 2012

“All I wanna say is that they don’t really care about us…”

As a journalist in training,I’ve always aimed to be as balanced as possible when writing this blog. On a personal level, I am a staunch supporter of the Fat Acceptance and Health at Every Size movements, so I predict it will be difficult having to give airtime to any Government initiatives that push weight loss onto a community…so, I see this blog as a bit of practice in reporting both sides of the coin.

However, as a journalist, I also believe it is my responsibility to expose injustice, give a voice to the voiceless, and stand in the gap for those who are marginalised by society. Hopefully, in some way, this blog does the same. So…I wanted to talk about this piece I found recently in the US International Business Times. I don’t know if this piece “stands in the gap” necessarily- but it certainly casts harsh light on the tough old world the overweight and obese live in.

Some of the makes important points the article makes are:

1) More than one third of adult Americans and 17 percent of young Americans are classed as obese – yet, despite these large numbers, these people have no voice in Government. Says the writer: “The number of “fat” Americans far surpasses those of any racial, ethnic or religious minority – despite this, they have no voice in government, nor does any national politician explicitly seek out their support.

“While it is true that poor minorities are disproportionately obese and overweight…rates are so high across all racial and social classes that it puzzles me as to why they are not considered a viable voting bloc, like the elderly or disabled are.”

2) Meanwhile, the US Government certainly hasn’t been shy about stamping out obesity across America, thus marginalising the overweight further. “Moreover, when first lady Michelle Obama unveiled her anti-obesity initiative to promote healthy eating among children, she was assailed by some Republicans…for denying Americans the freedom to eat whatever they want. However, in that case, Mrs. Obama was not really “attacking” the rights of the obese; rather, she was seeking to prevent the next generation of U.S. children from becoming overweight. That sentiment would tend to alienate or embarrass fat people.”

3) There is still a close and problematic relationship between the US Government and the agribusiness sector- and, of course, the millions pocketed by the sector for the sale of high-fructose corn syrup. “[Political scientist Jamie] Chandler also noted that congressmen tend to be very friendly with the agribusiness sector, especially corn producers who derive significant profits from sales of high-fructose corn syrup, one of the leading causes of obesity. ‘This relationship tends to block any potential fitness and health-related legislation designed to lower obesity rates,’ he added.

“Thus, many politicians seem to be fond of pushing policies that will keep the numbers of obese people high, without showing much concern about their health and welfare.”

4) The obese and overweight are one of the most despised and ridiculed groups in American society, and that they been discriminated against in almost every area- from going for jobs and apartments, to just popping out to get the milk. And yet, the Government still will not speak for them. “I have seen fat people moved to the back of restaurants by managers who don’t want passers-by seeing them through the front window; I have witnessed passengers on trains and buses move away from obese people; and I have heard endless cruel insults and jokes hurled at fat people.

“I would also not be surprised if overweight people have been discriminated against with respect to job hiring or apartment rentals. In these cases, that would clearly represent a violation of civil rights.” (Unfortunately, there have been cases of people getting the sack for being obese, and some health care facilities in the US have proposed not to hire those with a BMI over 30. This TIME Magazine piece explores the issue of obese women earning lower salaries).

5) There is a lack of overweight representatives in the US Government- which may be a result the widespread stigma against larger people. “I have written before that Chris Christie, the rotund governor of New Jersey, will never become president because most Americans simply do not want an obese person as the head of state. Over the past century, most of the chief executives have been tall and slender. The last obese president was William Howard Taft, but he left office 100 years ago, long before the age of television and Internet.”

The point in the article that resonated the strongest was that discrimination against the overweight is still prevalent. As a small bit of personal disclosure, I have experienced size-related discrimination in my time – but it’s not since I discovered the Size Acceptance movement last year that I realised how much of a problem it is, and how truly “thin-obsessed” our society is.

I’ve already mentioned discrimination of the overweight in the workplace, and larger women earning lower salaries, above and there are a host of articles that support this claim. This Guardian article describes fat shaming as “a new and vicious sport”. Says the writer:  “Fat youngsters in Georgia have their photos pasted on billboards like mug shots. Children and their parents are being shamed for looking different than the thousands of Photoshopped pictures we see weekly on our screens, phone, computers, laptops and magazines. No wonder society has a thing about fat. Fat people are so rarely included in visual culture that fat is perceived as a blot on the landscape of sleek and slim.”  This article cites a study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, which found that discrimination against the overweight is as prevalent in the US as racial discrimination. This piece in Salon compared anti-obesity sentiment to homophobia- in that both homosexuality and obesity have been treated as “diseases” and “moral failings” that can be cured.

And where are the world’s Governments and businesses in all this? Well, they’re certainly trying their darndest to cure the “disease” as it were. So far, on this blog, we have found that Governments and corporations have:

* in the case of the US Government, passed legislation to require children to be served fruit and vegetables in US schools, in a bid to reduce obesity;

* in the case of Disney, introduced theme park rides demonising the obese, in an effort to teach kids about heathy habits;

* in the case of the UK Government, cried foul over McDonald’s sponsorship of the Olympics; as it “sends out the wrong message”;

* in the case of both the Australian and US Governments, removed obese children from their homes; and

* in the case of the Western Australian Federal Government, introduced advertisements using graphic shock tactics to raise awareness of obesity- and ignored advice from eating disorder specialists in the process.

And, those are just the things I’ve had the time to discuss! There have been the Strong 4 Life Billboards in Georgia (which came down eventually), doctors being urged to put their overweight patients into therapy, 54 percent of UK doctors claiming that the NHS should deny fat patients emergency treatment and the Girl Guides of America teaching young women about weight loss. And many, many others.

But, in amongst all of this, who in the world’s Governments has bothered to actively give the overweight a voice? Instead of spending money on campaigns to eradicate obesity, which, as the author of the International Business Times piece pointed out, actually serves to alienate the overweight further – has anyone thought to stand in the gap for this marginalised group in society? There are still an estimated 1.6 billion obese adults in the world – so are these Government initiatives actually having any effect (plus, studies have shown that 95 percent of people gain will gain weight back within five years of weight loss)?

Has anyone in Government thought of standing in the gap for the overweight who are bullied, who do face discrimination in their daily lives, and who are paid less than their slimmer colleagues? Well, some members of the UK Government did, as I discussed in this post, by proposing to make appearance-based discrimination punishably by law. This was met with skepticism at best, and derision at worst. In the US, only the State of Michigan and six cities (two in California, one in Wisconsin, one in Illinois, one in New York and Washington DC) have laws protecting against discrimination in based on body weight. Here in New Zealand, there is nothing in our Human Rights legislation that prevents against size discrimination. A friend once told me she was barred from a club because of her weight (something similar happened to this young lass in the US) – and she complained to our Human Rights Commission, which said there was nothing they could do.

So, who speaks for the 1.6 billion people who live in a society obsessed with appearance, with a diet industry making over $60 billion (US) a year, and with health care professionals basing their health on a system that is inherently flawed? Who in the Government stands up for them, and actually stops to listen to what they want, and considers how the system can actually work for them? There are many wonderful Size Acceptance blogs, and the online movement is growing all the time. But the politicians? Our leaders? Those who make the policies and the laws, and actually have a mandate to act for the marginalised and the oppressed?

Right now, I’m sorry to say, Michael Jackson says it better.

Posted by: ezzakazhall | August 17, 2012

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Mac?!

I thought it was time for another post about the Olympics, following on from my last one. I watched the Games religiously this time (I probably enjoyed them more than my sports-mad husband, to be honest!) and, in a rare moment of patriotism, I am hugely proud of our teeny-tiny, itty-bitty country for bringing home a large haul of medals, including six gold. And I will admit to furiously fanning my eyes during some of those medal ceremonies.

However, it would appear that the London Games not only sparked a little extra obesity panic in New Zealanders alongside all that extra patriotism. Which was triggered by the same issues explored in my last post- that’s right, sponsorship of the Games by McDonalds.

This article appeared on the news site Voxy on 10 August, just a few days shy of the closing ceremony. It quotes Elaine Rush, Professor of Nutrition at the Auckland University of Technology, who is pushing for the New Zealand Olympic Committee to lobby to “remove the public exposure to McDonalds and Coca Cola as major sponsors of the Olympics.”

Says Prof. Rush:

“One ad, which has been screening during the games, features a small child eating McDonalds chips while watching the Olympics…

“We know that children look up to the athletes at the Olympics and rightly so. They are amazing athletes who have dedicated their lives to representing their country by achieving at the highest level.

“Millions of children receive the message linking fast food and drink with sporting achievement. This will not only be detrimental for their long-term health but adversely affects all of society. Products from both Coca Cola and McDonalds are energy rich but nutrient-poor. So not only is this adding to the obesity epidemic it is leading to our children having a lack of essential vitamins and minerals.”

Of course. Won’t someone think of the children?

I have discussed the issues I had with the London Assembly proposing a ban on McDonalds and Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the Olympic games in my last entry on the topic (linked above). The issues that came to mine for me were as follows:

1) Given McDonalds has been a sponsor of the Olympics since 1976 (and Coke since 1928), the London Assembly is slightly late to the party- and I’m not sure if this is indicative of rising obesity statistics, or just a greater societal preoccupation with obesity.

2) I had concerns about the idea that athleticism and the occasional consumption of takeaways were mutually exclusive. For instance, I mentioned Usain Bolt’s chicken nugget addiction and Danyon Loader’s sweet tooth. Shortly after I made that blog post, Hurricanes Fullback Andre Taylor featured in an episode of The Crowd Goes Wild, during which he confessed to a slight penchant for KFC. Champion gymnast and “Flying Squirrel” Gabby Douglas confessed on Jay Leno’s show to splurging on an Egg McMuffin after winning gold (after which she was “jokingly” scolded by Michelle Obama). Clearly, no-one’s perfect and even sportspeople are prone to the occasional indulgence.

3) I also had concerns about the idea that larger bodies and athleticism were mutually exclusive. I mentioned, for example, Sarah Robles and Holley Mangold, two US weightlifters who represented their country in London, who would almost certainly fit within the definition of obesity, according to the BMI chart. In fact, if we’re measuring obesity against the BMI scale (that is, a ratio of weight to height) then our very own double gold-medalist Valerie Adams is, at 1.96m tall and 120kg, technically obese- with a BMI of 31. As would also be most of the US basketball team, as very tall and muscular people are also considered obese on the BMI chart. As is All Blacks Prop Tony Woodcock, at 1.84m and 118kg (BMI of almost 35).

4) I didn’t mention this on my last blog on the topic – but, while there have been concerns that McDonalds products are contributing to the “obesity epidemic”, there are myriad causes of obesity, not solely poor diet. Issues with body weight can also be caused by various medications, such as steroids, psychotherapeutic medications and anti-cancer drugs; by health problems, such as hyperthyroidism and polycystic ovarian syndrome; and can also be a result of traumatic life events, such as depression or serious injuries (both of which can result in periods of inactivity). In addition…excessive consumption of alcohol can also lead to weight gain. Yet, there are still brands of alcohol sponsoring sports events, both in New Zealand and overseas.

While the same issues came up for me upon reading the Voxy piece…I will say that Prof Rush has a point of sorts. Yes, McDonalds products are, as she says, energy rich and nutrient poor, and it is important that children get the vitamins and minerals they need. This young lass shows us what can happen if young people do not get a varied diet, and live solely off chicken nuggets and french fries (however…she wasn’t actually fat…). I can also imagine that, while training, an Olympian’s diet would probably look something more like this.

As this Huffington Post opinion piece points out, fast food advertising can be a powerful, seductive tool. Says the article, “their ads are too clever to nag you to fill up on Big Macs and large Cokes. Instead, they worm their way into your heart to create warm, fuzzy feelings.”  So, if we, as a society, are wanting children to eat fewer nuggets and more veggies, “warm fuzzy” advertisements such as the one with the father and son sharing fries while watching the Games (I’m guessing that’s the one Prof Rush was referring to) may not be the best idea. However, while I can understand the desire to protect kids from the seductiveness of such advertising, one thing I would like to see is statistical evidence showing that the message “linking fast food to athletic achievement” is adversely affecting New Zealand children- and that children are actually buying into it.

Has anyone actually surveyed kiwi kids of a certain age to find out if they do associate competitive sport with Big Macs and Large Cokes? Or if they believe a steady diet of McDonalds will be their ticket to Rio 2016? Or if there has been a spike in the number of families with young children dining in at McDonalds since the most recent Olympics? Or, for that matter, a spike in customers signing up with ANZ bank, the official partner of the New Zealand Olympic team? Or a spike of sales of Bell Tea, one of the official sponsors of Equestrian New Zealand (and Mark Todd)? Or Powerade, which ran ads featuring cyclist Ali Shanks? Or of Head and Shoulders shampoo, endorsed by Michael Phelps, or Pantene, endorsed by US swimmer Natalie Coughlin? Or of other Procter and Gamble brands, after these adorable ads? If McDonalds’ sponsorship and advertising during the Olympics is linking sporting achievement with fast food- surely these other products are also linked to sporting achievement in the same way?

In all seriousness, it would be interesting to see if any such research would be carried out, if the NZOC were to lobby for a ban on McDonalds’ sponsorship. And if products that sponsor sports or sporting events are consumed more than those that do not. Plus, something I would mention is that I am yet to see any advertisements on New Zealand television that use Olympians or any other sports people to endorse McDonalds (the Vodafone Warriors having their own burger is the only thing I can think of). However, I have seen plenty of advertisements for weight loss programmes (Jenny Craig being the most common) featuring celebrities- Mariah Carey, Mel B, Shortland Street actress Stephanie Tauevihi and Dame Edna to name but a few. Given studies have shown that dieting and weight cycling can also be harmful to health, is it a wise idea to have young children connecting famous figures with diet programmes? As discussed in my post of 2 August, messages about weight control can result in poor body image for young people (and I have, unfortunately, known of parents who have put their pre-teens on Jenny Craig…).

As I also discussed on my 2 August blog, I am all for promoting healthful living – and I mentioned several initiatives employed in New Zealand for promoting healthy living to children and their families. One programme I didn’t mention is the Green Prescription, which supports families to be more physically active- and which was mentioned in this Manuwatu Standard article  as helping a young man and his mother make positive changes. On the topic of the Olympics, the NZOC runs the Olympic Schools programme, which encourages primary school children to take part in sporting activities. I can support encouraging healthy food choices and physical activity- much more so than banning fast food advertising or its sponsorship of sporting events. At least not without evidence that children are linking fast food with sporting achievement.

Once again, thoughts are appreciated.

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