Obesity: is processed food the new tobacco?
Are we addicted to foods that make us obese and kill?
Why is it hard for obese people to lose weight despite the social stigma and health consequences associated with being overweight? Is it similar to cigarette smokers who continue to smoke even though they know smoking will give them cancer and heart disease?
Is processed food the new tobacco?
Large growing global epidemic
Over the past 25 years the prevalence of obesity in England has more than doubled and today, most English people are either overweight or obese. Similarly, in the US more than a third of individuals are obese.
It’s estimated that each year, obesity costs the NHS more than £5bn and the US economy about $150bn.
Global epidemicOnce considered a problem only for rich countries, obesity is a rising worldwide challenge. In 1997 the World Health Organization (WHO) formally recognized obesity as a global epidemic and in 2008, claimed that 1.5 billion adults were obese.
Experts say a couch potato lifestyle and overindulgence in junk food is creating an overweight and obese generation prone to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. In rich countries people have easy access to cheap, high-energy food that is often aggressively marketed.
Call for parents and local authorities to help
The press refers to the “obesity time-bomb” and suggests that misguided parents are bringing up a generation of overweight children who gorge on junk food and sugary treats and rarely get any exercise. UK policy makers say that more should be done to support families to help them tackle the obesity crisis in children and young people.
In January 2014, Professor Philip James told the European Congress on Obesity in Antwerp: “Unless we can act firmly and decisively, we will be condemning a huge number of children . . . to becoming a ‘lost generation’.”
Where should we target our concerns? Parents? Municipal authorities? Or, the food and drinks industry?
Contrary to popular belief, people have not become greedier or less active, but what they eat has changed. Everyday, people are bombarded by food industry adverts to eat more food. New scientific evidence suggests that industrial processed food is biologically addictive.
The tobacco industry
In 1954, the tobacco industry paid to publish a “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” in hundreds of US newspapers. It stated that the industry was concerned about peoples’ health and promised a number of good-faith changes.
What followed were decades of deceit and actions that cost millions of lives. During that time the tobacco industry emphasised personal responsibility and paid scientists to deliver research that triggered doubt and criticised science that found harm associated with smoking.
The food and drink industry
Similarly today, some large food and drink companies fund scientific research to establish health claims about their products.
A 2013 report suggests that scientific research sponsored by the food and drink industry is five times more likely to conclude that there are no links between consumption of sugary drinks and weight gain.
In March 2014, Dame Sally Davies, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer told a committee of MPs that, "research will find sugar is addictive" and that the government, “may need to introduce a sugar tax".
For years the tobacco industry made self-regulatory pledges, aggressively lobbied to stifle government actions and denied both the addictive nature of tobacco and their marketing to children.
Food and tobacco industries are different, but there are significant similarities in the actions they have taken in response to concerns that their products can harm.
Because obesity is now a pandemic the world cannot afford to make the same mistake it did with the tobacco industry.