Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Obesity and the Daily Mail

The Daily Mail's editor may or may not have been exhorted to "give them something to hate every day" by its proprietor, Lord Northcliffe, but today, the subject of the hate is fat people. Apparently 12,000 people are on disability benefit because of "metabolic disease", which the daily mail has taken as a proxy for "too fat to work" despite the fact not all the cases of diabetes will be due to blubber.

In a population of 70,000,000, 12,000 people is less than 0.02%. This really isn't very many, and some of whom will be ill without being fat. Obesity costs the NHS £9bn a year? I doubt that too. I suspect the Mail has just asked what heart disease, Diabetes and so forth costs the NHS and assumed that's all Obesity. In any case, in an NHS budget of £115bn, this too isn't that big a number. But the fat, like smokers die younger, costing the country less in pensions and die quicker, meaning they cost less the NHS less than a healthy person in their final years.

Having lied with statistics and asked the readers to blame the deficit and the breakdown of the NHS on salad-dodgers, we are then asked to blame the food industry. A nice, simple daily mail morality tale. Wicked businesses, allied to weak, stupid, gluttunous fat people (defined as 'people fatter than you') are costing YOU money. If only THEY could be made to behave, the problem would go away. Having waded through the article, I suspect most readers have got a very inaccurate impression as to the actual size of the problem of people who're "too fat to work", and the root causes of obesity.

The problem is obesity is not about sugary drinks or high calorie ready meals, or fast food. It's about a vast number of factors, most of which are not yet fully understood. Obesity has a genetic component. Some people have a greater propensity to put down fat than others. It has an environmental component: it's easier to eat healthily if you live in a relatively affluent area. Poor kids are less likely to have access to safe outdoor play. It has a life-style component. Active people don't tend to get fat.

But ultimately the problem is a combination of readily available high calorie food, and jobs that don't burn it off. We all have the appetite of a hunter-gatherer who roams miles in search of food, but we sit behind desks. Our jobs are stressful, which raises cortisol levels. Driving is stressful too. Yet our bodies do not get to make the "fight or flight" for which they are prepared, and instead lay down fat. And as our jobs get ever more sedentary, and ever more labour-saving devices are employed in the home, we will burn ever fewer calories as we move about.

There is a moral component to getting fat. It is possible to look in the mirror and say "I'm getting fat, and I must do something about it". But if you're fat as a 10 year-old, it's really not your fault. All studies show losing weight, and keeping it off is hard-to-impossible without lifestyle changes. Raising your activity levels isn't easy either. Having got fat, 'going for a run' puts an intolerable burden on knees and backs. Thighs will rub together and bleed. The extra activity needed to burn off the blubber is simply agony for the obese. 'Take daily exercise' isn't that simple.

It seems that at some point in development, your body decides how much fat it wants to carry, and this happens quite young. Most people get steadily fatter as they get older, and research suggests a bit of middle-aged spread isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's certainly better than being underweight. What matters far more than Body Mass Index is how active you are. People who take regular, moderate exercise are much, much healthier than those who don't, even if they carry a few extra pounds.

This is why active transport - cycling and walking is so important. It will allow an increase in activity, without requiring the willpower to "go for a run". A bicycle is a labour saving device, relative to walking, and in any sensible society, should be the first choice of transport for journeys under a couple of miles. But as Daily Mail readers are viciously opposed to bicycles, as the transport of people they don't understand, the one thing that might reduce obesity will not be supported.

So the Daily Mail plays its vicious little morality play, feeding idiots' righteous indignation by lying with statistics, in order to fuel animus against THEM. All the while, being a significant part of the problem itself. The Daily Mail is a hateful little rag, which leaves its readers a little less informed, every single day.



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