“The men who made us fat”, BBC2, 14th June 2012
When I was in high school, I heard a song that was played live in assembly one day by a group of travelling musicians. I still to this day remember the chorus, which went as follows –
“I’m so glad that I have learned the lesson that was taught,
That everything I do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault.”
The song was naturally a bit of a joke, but I remember the take-home message as if I had heard the song only yesterday; we must be responsible for our actions.
Since one of my readers alerted me to this program, with, I think, the desire for my comments, I decided to break with tradition and watch TV on a weekday (I am usually still at karate training at 9pm on a Thursday). I had been looking forward to the program in some ways but not in others. For example, I always relish the opportunity to slam the manufacturers of and purveyors of junk food, but ultimately, we have a choice – we do not actually have to buy their products.
The documentary inevitably began with the usual and much over-used camera shot of fat people waddling down a typical shopping street. Never a pleasant sight, but for some reason the makers of the program seemed to think that we needed a reminder of what fat people look like from behind, whilst reminding us of the fact that the average adult in Britain is now 3 stone heavier than 50 years ago, and that 2/3 of the adult population is now overweight. The camera then panned in to a shot of overweight people attempting an aerobics class. Bless them, they were trying to do something about their weight by exercising, and must be congratulated on their efforts, but I still found it a rather unnecessary addition to what I had hoped would be a factual documentary.
Professor Jimmy Bell at Hammersmith Hospital was then interviewed. He performs MRI studies in relation to internal fat distribution, and states that a healthy adult should possess no more than 2 litres of internal fat, whereas in obese people the levels can often be seen to be between 10 to 15 litres; further confirmation that we have gone badly wrong, and therefore we perhaps need to look somewhere to apportion the blame.
We were then taken back to 1971 in the USA under the Nixon administration, and housewives protesting at the increase in food prices. Earl Butts, the Secretary for Agriculture at that time, championed the move from small farms to industrial scale farming, bringing cheaper food, and farmers were encouraged to grow “fencerow to fencerow”, and grow as much as possible, with the “help” of the burgeoning artificial fertiliser industry.
Japanese scientists were responsible for creating high fructose corn syrup, made out of all the surplus corn that farmers were producing. This cost only 33% of the price of sugar, and has created massive problems, particularly since it is now present in practically all processed foods, and started to replace sugar in canned drinks in 1984. In 1985 in the USA, the consumption of canned drinks was, on average, 350 cans per person year. It is now 600 per year on average, a frightening trend in very much the wrong direction. The fructose, from high fructose corn syrup, is associated with weight gain since it is easily turned into fat, as shown by studies involving metabolic markers. It also suppresses leptin, a satiety hormone – a double whammy in favour of weight gain.
So, time to ask Susan Neely, spokesperson for the American Beverage Association, some difficult and probing questions. Could the increased consumption of soft drinks, with their massive sugar or corn syrup content, be somehow linked to the increased obesity rates? Of course not, she states. Soft drinks do not cause obesity, it is the overall excess caloric intake that causes the problem, not the sugar intake. However, we know this to be untrue.
Back to Britain in the 1970s, and the “cause” of people getting fatter. The documentary states that the cause was the increased acceptance of snacking between meals, which had hitherto been frowned upon. This was obviously driven by the food industry, who wanted to create “nutritious products that people can eat on the move”, according to a food industry spokesperson. This is the point in the documentary at which I started to laugh, because otherwise I would just have become angry. So, “a finger of fudge” is a nutritious product? Loaded with sugar, fat, and empty calories? Get real! We did, back in the 1970s, already have nutritious products that people could eat on the go. They were called apples, pears, bananas…
The frozen food industry was then called to reckoning, with the boom in mass-produced ready desserts that could be deep frozen and used whenever anyone wanted, adding of course to sugar and empty-caloric load. In 1974 in Leicester Square in London, the beginning of the end arrived, in the form of the first McDonald’s, and a rapid increase in obesity in the following 20 years. A spokesman did admit that the government should have intervened earlier. The sugar industry grip was perpetuated by Ansell Keys in the USA and his theory on heart disease, labelling saturated fat as the enemy (subsequently trying to prove himself right), whilst John Yudkin on the opposite side of the pond, with his 1972 book entitled “Pure, White and Deadly” was much closer to the mark with his statement that it was sugar that was the cause of heart disease. In my CD “The Importance of Fat”, I discuss the current findings, expose sugar as the enemy and state that many fats are actually healthy and we run into serious problems if we drastically cut our intake of healthy fat.
Sadly, John Yudkin was discredited as a result of massive pressure from the sugar industry, and Keys won the battle, despite the fact that refined sugar had only really been introduced 8 generations previously. David Kessler, former head of the US FDA, now condemns the mass marketing of food. Food signals are present approximately every 100 yards down most streets in the USA. Sugar consumption activates reward centres in the frontal cortex of the brain, and high sugar content “food” is designed to promote a hedonistic response. Such items, high in fat, sugar and empty calories, activate the same circuits in the brain as those involved in addiction.
The food industry, naturally, says it is the responsibility of the individual to control their eating habits, reiterating what I stated in one of my opening paragraphs. Whilst this is fundamentally true, it is very hard for many people to do this when they are presented not only with a totally overwhelming selection of junk on the supermarket shelves, but also mass TV advertising of “happy meals”, inappropriate sponsorship of sporting events, and mixed messages regarding what we should be eating in the first place. One of the final nails in the coffin was the excellent attempt made in 2003 by the WHO to set limits to global sugar consumption to 10% of the diet. The response by the sugar industry was to threaten to withdraw funding from the WHO, described as “tantamount to blackmail and worse than any pressure exerted by the tobacco industry”.
With obesity in the UK now costing the NHS over £4 billion per year, something has to change. Is it the food industry’s fault? Is it the overwhelming responsibility of the individual? Is “blame culture” too rife these days? Is there a solution? What is your opinion? Having heard numerous sides to this story, I believe there is a solution. It is simple. But it is NOT easy. It takes massive personal responsibility and a complete change of mindset, starting with each individual, and commencing with self-respect and self-love. Then, and only then, can progress be made. Once people are ready and willing to change, anything is possible.