Commentary: To tackle obesity, we must change conditions not people

LONDON: Expanding waistlines have little to do with individual responsibility, and everything to do with how we live and work.

Next time you find yourself discussing the plethora of health problems facing the world today, try a little experiment. Glance at your watch and check how long it takes until someone says it’s all down to obesity. My guess is it will be within the first five minutes, at most.

The high US COVID-19 death rate? Obesity. Chronic illness eroding Britain’s workforce? That’ll be obesity. The NHS in crisis? It’s the obesity.

To be clear, rising rates of obesity do contribute to all of these things and many more, but to identify it as the cause of a problem is as useful as the football coach who observes that his team are losing because their opponents scored more goals. Obesity is not the cause of a problem, but a symptom.

Over the past 50 years, no country has reversed the trend of rising obesity. It seems increasingly likely that one reason for this is that public (and policy) understanding of its drivers is woefully outdated, meaning that most proposed remedies – such as food labelling – are misguided, and many accelerants – such as stress and abundant processed foods – are unchecked.

The “individual responsibility” idea, that people gain weight due to self-destructive decisions that they can be enlightened out of, has proved false. The view that it is simply a matter of calories-in minus calories-out has also been debunked.

While people who consume plenty of calories can increase the amount of energy they expend by doing more physical activity, those who reduce their food intake in an effort to lose weight find that doing more exercise has little to no impact on calories burnt.