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Obesity and the blame game

Published : Friday January 20, 2012 | Posted in : General Health
Finger pointing blame

As obesity levels continue to rise around the Western world, newspaper headlines are full of potential culprits to blame for the ‘epidemic’. The average reader would be forgiven for thinking a new offender was being unmasked every week. So what is the truth behind the alarmist - or at least, alarming - headlines? What - or who - is to blame for the rising levels of obesity?

The reality behind these kinds of stories is less exciting. The truth is that it is far easier to find a new scapegoat to blame that to dedicate the same column inches to helping those struggling with obesity to lose weight. After all, once you’re obese, how you got there is largely irrelevant. Pinpointing Ronald McDonald as the source of your troubles may be temporarily gratifying, but it won’t bring you any closer to losing the weight.

Anyone can play the blame game. Just yesterday, the Mail Online ran a lead story expressing outrage at the audacity of Tesco for daring to cut the price of multipack chocolate bars. A supermarket putting a product on special offer? Shocking! The outrage, the reporter claimed, stemmed from the fact that chocolate bars are an unhealthy product and selling them at a lower price is encouraging and contributing to the obesity problem in the UK. Included in the article is a quote from the National Obesity Forum, calling the price drop “totally irresponsible”, and a picture of a man weighed down with bags of chocolate bars. Damning evidence? Well, not really.

For one thing, this price drop is just one out of literally hundreds of price cuts that will have been made across Tesco stores. Price cuts and special offers are Tesco’s bread and butter. It seems unfair to focus solely on one specific price cut just because it makes a better headline. The article neglects to mention the price drops that have also been made on healthy foods, such as apples (half price for a bag of Gala apples), frozen peas (two for £3 for 900g bags) and fresh soup (£1 for a branded carton). It would be frankly ludicrous for Tesco to take the stance of delegating their price cuts solely to foods they deem “healthy”. It is not the place of a supermarket to police their customers, and it is unreasonable to expect them to do so.

Furthermore, it requires a fairly athletic leap in judgement to make the assumption that one supermarket cutting the price on a selection of chocolate bar multipacks will contribute in any meaningful way to the obesity epidemic. Clearly, chocolate bars alone are not to blame for a national trend in expanding waistlines. Though they are often associated with an unhealthy diet, they can also be eaten as part of a healthy lifestyle. It is erroneous to suggest that anyone choosing to eat healthily has to cut out chocolate bars completely. The key to a healthy lifestyle is balance, not self-deprivation.

The truth of the matter is the vast majority of people who will choose to take advantage of the offer will do so with the intention of “stocking up” their cupboards rather than embarking on a chocolate binge. Chocolate bars have a long shelf-life, and just two or three multipacks of five could last a small family for several weeks. In light of the current financial climate, it makes perfect sense for supermarkets to offer price drops across a variety of products and for people to make use of them.

This is not the first and will not be the last example of an article about obesity that misses the point entirely of the real problem and how to solve it. The crucial point to understand is that there is a big difference between something being a contributory factor to obesity, and something being the cause of obesity.

With the exception of those for whom obesity is caused by medical conditions, there is no single cause of obesity. The plain truth is that a combination of lifestyle factors is to blame, and these include diet, levels of exercise and sleep patterns, among many others. Focusing blame on one factor ignores the others, and changing one lifestyle habit alone will not cure obesity. A far broader lifestyle change needs to be adopted with dedication and perseverance to overcome this problem.

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