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Into the O-zone

Exploring the realm of obesity

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Into the O-zone

To understand and remedy the causes fueling the world's obesity epidemic, we would be wise to explore some of the less obvious roots of this global phenomenon.

It seems so simple really. Eat too much and move too little, and you’ll get too fat. Move more and eat less, and you’ll get thinner. If human beings were machines, we would all plug into this universal weight loss equation and live the rest of our lives in svelte bliss.

But we are not machines. We are complex beings with complex influences, so this reductionist approach is not necessarily the universal cure for an escalating worldwide trend toward obesity. To understand and remedy the deeper causes fueling the obesity epidemic, we would be wise to explore some of the less obvious roots of this global phenomenon.

Cultural Overconsumption

While famine and starvation plague vast regions of the world, the inhabitants of many other countries are killing themselves with diseases related to overeating. As of 2007 the World Health Organization (WHO) reported an unprecedented 1.6 billion overweight and obese people. This number is double the 800 million people on our planet who are suffering from malnutrition.

It’s not only countries in the Western world that have a problem with expanding waistlines. Many developing nations are now bursting at the seams, too, as their traditional diets yield to the advertising power of the fast food nations. After centuries of subsisting on regionally grown foods, poorer nations are succumbing to the growing availability of the all-American diet of high-calorie, processed foods.

Tipping the Scales In Paradise

A list of the world’s fattest countries confirms an explosive trend toward obesity. Case in point: the South Pacific. Once a paradise of shapely women and muscular men, this region now has the dubious distinction of havingeight of the top fattest countries. How didthis happen?

Although South Pacific cultures have always believed that being large is beautiful, the last 50 years have shown a marked increase in obesity rates. Expanded economic ties to the US and New Zealand have coincided with the region’s expanding girth, where approximately 85 percent of the population over the age of 15 is overweight (based on body mass index, or BMI).

A surge in Western food imports and a significant change in diet and lifestyle are contributing factors. In addition, studies conducted by the WHO’s Western Pacific regional office and the International Obesity Taskforce (a London-based think tank) also recognize the impact of decreased activity caused by less farming and agricultural work.

The Geography of Obesity

This trend is not just happening in the South Pacific. Neville Rigby, director of policy and public affairs for the International Association for the Study of Obesity, found that “obesity rates dramatically increase in countries undergoing economic development as rural workers moving to urban areas perform less physical labor and supplant traditional low-fat diets that include local goods with processed diets that are high in fat and sugar.”

Developed countries are fatter than ever, too. The US is still one of the top 10 fattest countries in the world–number nine to be exact–with over 74 percent of Americans lugging around too much body fat. The United Kingdom weighs in at number 28 with almost 64 percent in the overweight zone. Canadians rank number 35 on the list, with over 61 percent of us lounging in the overweight category.

Mapping the O-zones

Charting the regions where residents are most overweight or obese has revealed some interesting patterns. Based on the combined results of two national British surveys, one such “fat map,” as it was dubbed, clearly shows that the poorer, former industrial towns in the North of England are among the fattest areas.

Fat maps of the US illustrate this same relationship. In 2005 the US census showed that the Southern states had the highest level of poverty and obesity of all US regions, suggesting that poverty is perhaps a better predictor of obesity than race or education.

Locations of fast food outlets are another key to interpreting the results of fat maps. While obesity rates in all the states are on the rise, the greater the number of fast food franchises per capita, the higher the obesity rates.

Subsidizing Obesity

In general, the less money you have, the greater the likelihood that you’ll be overweight. One reason for this is because foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients are also less expensive. The main reason they cost less is because many government agricultural subsidies favour the growing of food commodities used by the food processing industry. The cost of producing fattening junk food is literally being bankrolled by governments. Meanwhile, the farmers who grow wholesome, low-calorie produce struggle to keep their farms.

On a positive note, 2007 marked the first time Americans began to question the subsidizing of high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils at a time when obesity is soaring.

It is hoped that the locally grown and slow-food movements that are becoming increasingly popular around the world will help us to retrain our taste buds. If we can learn to discern and appreciate the natural flavours of wholesome, fresh foods, we will realize that it is quality, not quantity, that truly satisfies our appetites.

Shifting the Weight of Consciousness

To move beyond compulsive eating, a dynamic, holistic shift is needed that embraces far more than the fundamentals of a weight loss diet. Here is an inspiring personal account from Geneen Roth, author of Feeding the Hungry Heart (Penguin, 1993).

“The real miracle wasn’t that I lost weight or that the biggest problem of my life was no longer a problem; it was that all this time, my longing–which expressed itself in distorted eating–was for the right thing, but I didn't know how to listen, to be attentive. All this time, my self-destructive eating was a valiant though misguided attempt at being fully alive. Like a plant naturally curves to the light, I could trust the curves of my heart. I could trust that what I wanted most was to be whole.”

Source: geneenroth.com

Moderation Breaks a Vicious Cycle

Weight cycling is not the name of a new stationary bike exercise. It’s a repetitive cycle of losing weight and regaining it, over and over again.

Not only does this wreak havoc on our metabolism but it often leads to binge eating, depression, low self-esteem, and poor body image. The most effective and permanent weight loss system is based on moderation in all things, especially moderate exercise and moderate calorie restriction.

Not Just Another Diet Book

Connecting deeply with our food is one of the first steps to overcoming our tendency to overeat. Here is a short list of books that will inspire, illuminate, and heal your relationship with food.

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon (Random House Canada, 2007)

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperCollins, 2007)

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan (Penguin, 2008)

The world’s fattest countries:

The following list reflects the percentage of overweight adults in each country aged 15 and over. These are individuals with a personal body mass index (BMI) greater than or equal to 25.

RankCountry%
1Nauru94.5
2Micronesia, Federated States91.1
3Cook Islands90.9
4Tonga90.8
5Niue81.7
6Samoa80.4
7Palau78.4
8Kuwait74.2
9United States74.1
10Kiribati73.6
----------------------------
35Canada61.1

Source: "World's fattest countries," by Lauren Strieb, Forbes, August 2007. forbes.com

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