Piling on the Pounds

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Review of 'Fat Wars', Ellen Ruppel Shell, Atlantic £8.99

Food scares are regular occurrences, from salmonella in eggs and chicken, BSE in beef and foot and mouth disease in sheep to cancer-causing toxins in Scottish salmon. Now it's just eating. In the US obesity is second only to smoking as the greatest public health hazard. In 1983 14 percent of all Americans were obese. Today it's 27 percent and, according to Ellen Ruppel Shell, 'virtually all Americans will be overweight by 2030, and half will be obese'.

Childhood obesity has risen from 5 percent in 1964 to 14 percent in 1999. The same pattern exists in countries following the same pattern of deregulation, fast food and the destruction of the public sector. Obesity in towns in China has quadrupled in the last decade, and nearly 20 percent of Chinese people are overweight. Globalisation and the free market are leading to the grotesque spectre of starvation-induced death in some parts of the world alongside the debilitating effects of being overweight in others - unless you are rich, able to control your lifestyle, and have the money for the right food and exercise.

While food and fizzy drinks manufacturers pour millions into developing and advertising cheap rubbish which appeals to children's tastebuds, overworked parents increasingly rely on prepackaged foods and fast food chains for food, where the fat and sugar content has increased dramatically over the last decade. Fast food chains aim to get young children to dictate food patterns to their parents by nagging them for particular kinds of foods and drinks. In the past, children's palates were trained to appreciate different kinds of flavours in different societies through eating together with adults. The variety of foods eaten throughout the world proves that food tastes are learned.

Today the likes of McDonald's see children throughout the world as their market, and they set out to train their palates. Schools, in the past a source of a balanced diet, often rely on these same food and drinks manufacturers for money for essentials such as textbooks, televisions and computers. School canteens have become fast food outlets, and an overloaded curriculum means less PE.

Pressurised workplaces mean workers increasingly eat while working or on the hoof. For millions of people, eating is no longer a social activity to be shared and lingered over. Food is something to ram down your throat whenever and wherever you feel hungry. Fast food is about big business and profit, not about our health.

Just as the food industry increasingly controls what and how we eat, our lifestyles are shaped by other industries. Towns designed for cars mean that cycling has declined by 40 percent in the last 25 years in the US, and Shanghai has recently banned bikes in favour of the car. Time spent in traffic jams has risen by 236 percent between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. Children walk less, get less exercise and spend hours in front of TV screens watching advertising designed to persuade them to eat junk. Watching TV leads to more eating, unlike reading.

Obesity is now recognised to be a problem leading to ever-increasing misery for millions who usually see it as their individual weakness. Ellen Ruppel Shell charts the medical and scientific responses in Fat Wars. Predictably, these have ranged from medical interventions such as stapling the stomach to reduce its size to research into genetic factors which have an impact on weight and eating. So one industry spends billions to get us to eat junk food while another spends billions to develop drugs to counter the effects. Although too modular and a little light on analysis, Ruppel Shell's book is packed full of information about the scientific work and theories developed over the last 20 years, as well as about the impact of changing diet and lifestyles on the world's population. Obesity is not about individuals who can't control themselves - it's about industrial giants who control us.