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Obesity, Health and The Power of Advertising

Image credit: The Spectator
Image credit: The Spectator
Image credit: The Spectator

Obesity is often seen as a Western phenomenon. This is a mistake. In reality it affects people from all corners of the globe. Some have argued that the global issue of obesity is a ticking time bomb whereas others go as far as suggesting that the bomb has already been detonated. Two billion adults today are overweight, six hundred million of them obese, a crisis that puts a huge strain on the NHS and other forms of healthcare required. Many of the problems to which obesity leads, both for the health of the individual and the state of our healthcare services, are preventable.

Weight problems for children is a growing problem. In 2014/2015, just under 20% of ten- to eleven-year-old children were obese. 31.2% of children in 2014, between the ages of two and fifteen, were overweight. A lot of this relates to television consumption. It’s no secret to anyone that children like to watch plenty of television.  Often, many of the food advertisements that children are subjected to when glued to their television sets advertise unhealthy food – McDonald’s, sugary snacks, fizzy drinks and so on. These advertisements carry over into what children can find on their mobile phones or surfing the Web. They play online games sponsored by food companies, sharing their high scores on social media and inadvertently becoming agents of the market.

Advertising for unhealthy food is everywhere. Print media, billboards, word of mouth, the Internet, merchandising and celebrity endorsement are just some of the many ways in which companies can promote their products. Advertisements for healthy eating do exist: ‘Change 4 Life‘ is an NHS campaign for families to eat well, consume less sugar, exercise more and, for adults, cut down on the alcohol. But healthy eating ads don’t feature as much as promotion for their unhealthy counterparts, most likely because healthy alternatives don’t make many companies a profit. Is in the commercial interest of a chocolate company to advertise healthy eating alongside its products?

There are considerable links between an unhealthy lifestyle and the development of cancer. The information presented by some groups like the Centre for Research into Cancer Prevention and Screening should trigger alarm bells in our minds, but many people prefer to read about health, science and medicine from the tabloid newspapers than the top journals such as the British Medical Journal.

The human body is a fascinating thing and despite our biological similarities we all respond to certain things differently. We all have different tolerances to alcohol and drugs: some people can be drunk after a single pint whereas others can almost drain the bar before they need help getting home! Similarly, we somehow all know two aunties, Jean and Norma. Auntie Jean has smoked, drank and lazed all the ninety years of her life and is still going strong, but Auntie Norma lived a plain, quiet life, was diagnosed with breast cancer and passed away in the treatment stage. Auntie Jean and Auntie Norma must prove that there is no link between bad lifestyles and disease, surely?

However, the correlations between obesity and cancer do exist. Obese people are more likely to suffer from cancer in the colon, breast cancer and bowel cancer. Being overweight also leads to greater chance of suffering from pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer and more. Obesity can also negatively affect your fertility, increase your chances of suffering arthritis (due to the huge physical strain under which the bones fall) and having strokes. We take comfort in remembering our Auntie Jeans and using them to help ignore the science; instead, perhaps we should pay greater attention to the health risks that come with being overweight.

The nutrition debate has the potential to turn very ugly. Sometimes, it’s a blame game. Are the individuals who eat too much and exercise too little at fault? Should we lay blame on the corporations who profit from our consumption of unhealthy foods and bad lifestyles? At other times, we tend to ignore the serious questions by laughing at the problem. Several TV channels show misleading documentaries about people suffering from morbid obesity, dietary problems or anorexia, usually proving more entertaining and belittling than actually informative depictions.

But what is the way forward? A panel of experts gathered at the 2016 Festival of Ideas and argued that, among other things, we should reevaluate how we market products, especially advertising things to children. At the University of Dundee, staff are encouraging members of the public to put pictures of their fruit and vegetables on social media. These ‘healthy shelfies’ will promote good dietary practice in a humorous but serious way. Much of the crises that come with obesity, bad diets and unhealthy living are in fact preventable – we should always aim to prevent problems before needing to resolve them.

This article was greatly informed by the lecture “Obesity: the Ticking Time Bomb,” part of a Focus Day in the 2016 Festival of Ideas. The lecture featured brief talks from Neville Rigby, Convenor of the International Obesity Forum and the former Director of Policy and Public Affairs at the International Obesity Task Force; Professor Jason Halford, Head of the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Liverpool; Annie S. Anderson, Professor of Public Health Nutrition and Co-Director of the Centre for Research into Cancer Prevention and Screening at the School of Medicine, the University of Dundee; and Dr. Jean Adams, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge. The event was chaired by Bee Wilson, of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.