Treating obesity as a disease may help but individuals must act too, writes Stephen Jardine.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions and for many people the journey began this week. Burdened by that annual mix of self-loathing and revulsion at the thought of any more indulgence, diet clubs and gyms are currently enjoying their busiest period of the year.
Add in Dry January and Veganuary and we should have the recipe for a fitter and healthier nation. Except we all know it doesn’t work that way because we’ve been here before. Except this January something is different.
Just as we returned to work feeling fat and guilty, The Royal College of Physicians emerged to reassure us the extra weight many of us are carrying really isn’t our fault. According to the organisation’s president, obesity is a disease rather than a lifestyle choice and we are the way we are thanks to genes, rather than a fondness for Quality Street and frangipane mince pies. “Recognising it as that allows people to see they have a disease and reduces the stigma of having obesity,” said Andrew Goddard. This intervention could not have been better timed. According to the World Health Organisation, the UK is now the most overweight country in Europe with 30 per cent of adults classed as obese. If nothing changes, more than half of the UK population will be obese by 2050. So something needs to change but is shifting the emphasis away from the individual the answer?
Supporters of this approach believe classifying obesity as a disease will make people more likely to seek help. It also puts more pressure on governments to come up with solutions through regulation and taxation, public health initiatives and controls on the availability and affordability of certain foodstuffs.
However it is a high-risk approach. While some people undeniably have a genetic disposition to be big, for others becoming overweight is a simple consequence of continually taking in more calories than they expend through exercise. That doesn’t mean losing weight is easy but nor does it dispense with personal responsibility. By labelling it a disease, we risk those afflicted simply shrugging their ample shoulders and sitting back to wait for the government and medical science to tackle it.
We already live in a blame culture where everyone is responsible except us. If you trip on a paving stone you sue the council. If your bumlift doesn’t deliver the desired effect, you sue the doctor. We are losing our ability to be self-critical about our own failings.
The Royal College of Physicians is right to suggest obesity is much more than just poor personal choices but that alone doesn’t make it a disease. Common sense tells us it is a condition where genetics may contribute but we must accept the role we play every time we pick up a knife and fork.
The Government needs to do much more in terms of legislation and food manufacturers and retailers must also shoulder blame. Easter Eggs in the shops already, really? Weight checks every time we visit the GP and clearer calorie labelling alongside hard-hitting public health campaigns will help. But at the end of the day, the buck stops with us and taking away that responsibility risks making things even worse.