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Obesity: Boston or Berlin?

A new nutritional paradigm would help the planet and human healthFrank Armstrong 


Three of our last four Ministers for Health share an unfortunate characteristic. While holding office, James Reilly (2011-?), Mary Harney (2004-2011) and Brian Cowen (1997-2000) have been overweight, perhaps obese (a BMI of 30 or greater). Only svelte Micheál Martin (2000-2004) bucks the trend.

It might seem crass to draw attention to personal failings, but I feel that is an important consideration for someone holding that position; a Minister for Justice who flouted the law would be viewed as inappropriate for that office.

Under their collective leadership Irish health authorities have been powerless against an obesity epidemic that is spreading fast. The last study showed that 23% of the Irish population is obese, with over 50% of men now overweight. We are the seventh fattest developed nation.

Ministers are at the apex of a system that places a great deal of focus on pathology but very little on health. Pills are the response to illness, prevention a faint afterthought; the message of Hipprocates who wrote “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” is ignored.

With a decline in the number of smokers, obesity has emerged as the main source of many of the pathologies that reduce the quality and length of Irish lives. But where does the lack of restraint that leads to that condition originate? The stress of modern living plays a significant role according to new research.

But nutritional deficiencies caused by an agricultural system dedicated to the production of meat also plays a part. The restricted space dedicated to crops grown for human consumption, as opposed to the area set aside for livestock and the crops grown to feed them, has led to the cultivation of high-yielding but often nutritionally-deficient varieties. The insatiable eating that leads to obesity may be a response to nutritional impoverishment.


Stressed Out

A recent collection of essays, Insecurity, Inequality and Obesity in Affluent Societies, suggests that our economic model: “closer to Boston than Berlin”, in the words of one of those Ministers, is a primary reason. Citizens in other European countries have similar access to the empty calories of refined sugars and saturated fats but are not as prone to their over-consumption.

The editor of the collection, Avner Offer, asserts: “Among affluent societies, the highest prevalence of obesity is to be found in countries most strongly committed to market-liberal policy norms”. He argues: “if stress generates obesity, then welfare states protect against stress, and are likely to have lower states of obesity”.

He says: “it is appropriate to think of the rise of obesity as an eruption, and to look for another eruption to explain it”. He identifies this as the emergence of the New Right in the 1970s, and the market-liberal regimes that subsequently carried out their economic and social programmes in the main English-speaking countries and elsewhere. Thus: “the economic benefits of flexible and open market liberalism, such as they are, may be offset by costs to personal welfare and public health, which are rarely taken into account”.

He cites the example of the UK where obesity rates have almost tripled since the 1979 arrival in office of Margaret Thatcher. He asserts that environmental conditions that might have generated obesity were already in place by the 1970s: car-use and television-watching were well established and food was already cheap and plentiful, but that Thatcherism acted as a catalyst.

He says increased stress levels, especially fuelled by employment uncertainty have had deleterious effects on dietary choices: “Physiologically, stress leads individuals to prefer fatty and sweet foods, and frequently to consume more calories, exacerbating weight gain, especially in the form of risky abdominal fat”. The idea of a link between insecurity, stress and obesity is supported by the ‘social gradient’ of obesity”: it is most prevalent among those at the bottom of the social scale.

He refers to a study on mice which suggests that weight gain from a high-fat, high-sugar diet is exacerbated by intense, chronic stress. Illuminatingly, in the month after September 11th, sales of snack foods increased by more than 12% across the United States as paranoia, verging on hysteria, swept the country. The national sense of homeland security was bolstered by Twinkies and M and Ms.

Further, a recent cross-sectional study of German adults found a higher risk of obesity among over-indebted individuals – a worrying indicator for Ireland. Overall: “among rich nations, the USA and Great Britain have experienced the greatest income inequality since 1980 and the greatest increase in the prevalence of obesity”. Indeed, six out the ten fattest countries in the OECD are the English-speaking countries where market-capitalism is most deeply embedded.


Nutritional Qualities

But any political argument ignores a deeper issue in our food supply: the progressive deterioration in the nutritional quality of our foodstuffs.

The Green Revolution after World War II gave rise to a vast increase in food production. But, in the West at least, our agricultural model places more emphasis on producing feed for animals than generating healthy nutritious food for human beings. This is exacerbated by the development of crops as biofuels. A mere 20% of corn grown in the US is actually consumed by human beings.

The prevailing nutritional wisdom after the depredations of the first half of the century was that we needed meat, and plenty of it. This was a motivation for the Common Agricultural Policy. But meat offers a paltry nutritional and calorific return on the land and the energy expended on it. The resulting scarcity of land diminishes the quality of crops grown for human consumption. The cultural expectation of meat for daily consumption perverts our agricultural system, besides driving climate change.

Varieties of highly-productive crop strains have been developed that allow farmers to produce more crops on the small amount of land that is given over to crops for human beings.

But recent research conducted by Unilever has yielded startling insights that should give policymakers and business leaders pause for thought. Dr Mark Berry, of Unilever’s R&D laboratories said: “The plants we eat today like fruits and vegetables have often been bred and selected on their weight-based yield per acre of land, and not necessarily on the nutrient content of the produce”.

He argues: “Perhaps a better strategy for human health, not to mention sustainable agriculture, would be to buy plants not based on their weight, but on their nutrient content”. And adds: “It’s fascinating to contemplate that these pre-domesticated varieties have remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years. We’ll be going back in time to identify the plants from yesteryear that our ancient ancestors would have eaten – with a view to potentially reintroducing them into our diet”.

Dwarfed Wheat

The story of common wheat triticum aestivum is instructive. In the 1940s Norman E Borlaug and his collaborators developed new strains, correcting a structural deficiency in the stalk which could not support heavy grains. Previously the most fruitful plants collapsed under the weight of their own seeds before maturity. Borlaug’s group developed dwarf strains that could stand up to the weight of bulbous grains, thereby doubling yields. This perhaps explains why so many people, and not only coeliacs, now avoid wheat.

Intriguingly, an ancient, non-hybridised wheat variety, ‘KAMUT khorasan’, contains more protein, and vital minerals like selenium. But, with half the yields, production is infinitesimal compared to common wheat. However, its superior nutritional qualities might increase satiety levels and generate less waste. Less could mean more.

Another development, this time in the baking industry, has turned most bread into junk food. The Chorleywood Bread Process developed in the UK in the 1960s is used to prepare approximately 80% of the bread we consume. It involves a super-quick fermentation; the slow maturation of dough is replaced by a few minutes of intense mechanical agitation in special high-speed mixers. This indigestible mix is an industrial marvel but a nutritional disaster. Indeed, the quality of an affluent nation’s bread is a reasonable barometer for obesity rates. Traditional, sourdough bread-preparation – still widely practised in Nordic countries and Germany – boosts the nutritional quality of bread through the addition of a bacterial culture that we now find sold in pharmacies.

Could it be that the poor are eating insatiably due to the nutritionally-deficient food they encounter? The wealthy and educated, meanwhile, can afford organic foods, rare crops, and artisanal bread, and may exercise more restraint. All classes have access to meat, far too much of it, and the extent to which our agricultural resources are stretched in order to produce it undermines the quality of crops for human consumption.


Food Futures

Our system of food production was set up in the wake of World War II. Producing meat in large quantities seemed wise in the wake of acute shortages. But the challenge has changed completely. There are now far too many calories on offer: we waste over 50% of them and eat far too many of them. Over-eating is also extremely wasteful, obese individuals often consume twice as many calories as they need.

What we need are crops that will satisfy nutritional, as opposed to simply calorific, needs. This will require a radical overhaul of our system of food production where lower-yielding but more nutritious strains are grown; where this state and the European Union face up to tackling the deep connection between health and diet.

The stress of living in a highly-competitive marketplace plays its part in this epidemic, but if the poor had greater access to nutritious food at low prices, satiety levels would increase. Instead an agricultural system devoted to meat production, especially prevalent across the English-speaking world, ensures that nutritionally-dense food remains extremely expensive. The question is whether a free market or the state can generate the appropriate response. But perhaps neither of the centralised systems of power represented by Boston or Berlin represents the right approach.

A new paradigm led by networks of like-minded people can provide appropriate nutritional solutions. A Third Industrial Revolution – required to save the planet, as Jeremy Rifkin argues – may need a political revolution that will bring about this change in agriculture. In improving the quality of our food, anxiety, fuelled by under-nutrition, will also be reduced.