A Concise History of the War on Fat (Forgive the Glut of Gratuitous Puns)
An unmistakable tipping of the scales towards the overweight and obese segments of society prompts scientists and epidemiologist to study the phenomenon. Correlations between obesity and disease and morbidity are discovered (and exacerbated by concomitant correlations between obesity and other unhealthy life styles). The media picks up the studies and digests them into catchy sound bites in time for the evening news. Stock footage of rotund rear-ends and chafing thighs accompanies media chronicles of the “expanding waistline.” Bloated statistics tally deaths and costs to the health care system.
Parents, NGOs and health organizations cry “think of the children!” Voters, taxpayers, insurance companies cry “why do I have to pay for Fatty McGee’s triple bypass?!” Something must be done.
Further studies are commissioned, and hefty grants disbursed to the clamour of funds-hungry scientists and epidemiologists. They happily cook up and churn out study after study confirming the negative health impact of obesity and fingering likely culinary-culprits. The results are analyzed by international and domestic health agencies, NGOs and think-tanks who spew out legislation recommendations designed to eradicate the fat-causing food, molecule, beverage or chemical of the day. And as C.A.G.E. might have mentioned before, bureaucracies - especially government bureaucracies -are gluttons for invasive legislation - especially bans.
Now, media stories on the “obesity epidemic” are accompanied by imminent government solutions:
We’re going to ban Trans-Fats!
Tax Junk Food!
Tax Fast-Food! No - ban Fast-Food within 5 miles of educational institutions!
Etc. etc. etc…
What is a trans-fat? In a nutshell, unsaturated fats are cheaper but have a much shorter shelf-life than saturated fats. Seeing an opportunity to reduce food-costs clever humans developed a process called hydrogenation (the process of adding hydrogen molecules) to turn unsaturated fats into saturated fats. This had the intended effect of creating a cheap fat with a long shelf life and a high melting point (good for baking). However, during the process some fat molecules are not hydrogenated properly but instead turn into trans-fats.
Trans-fats are also present naturally in low amounts in some animal products, for example in cow’s milk and meat. It is especially processed trans-fats, however, that have received the brunt of health-activists’ ire. They have been linked strongly to increased levels of LDL cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”), but also investigated in connection with cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, liver dysfunctions and infertility. All of these studies (no matter the strength of the correlation) were seized by the media and fed to a hysteric public.
In recent years Canada has been at the forefront of the movement to restrict and to ban trans-fats. For example, in 2007 Health Canada set up the Trans Fats Monitoring Program to make sure that the food industry is meeting the new limits.
C.A.G.E. recognizes the detrimental effects that trans-fats can have on health. However, we feel that rather than ban and set limits, the government’s role should be to provide its citizens with knowledge and then based on that, allow Canadians to ingest, or not, what they choose.
We call on the media to accurately report new scientific studies without resorting to hyperbole and pandering to hysteria. And we call on citizens to investigate media reports and hold them accountable when they fail (which they will inevitably do.) A little like a vampire, the government needed the initial invitation to cross the threshold into your private life. We need to rescind our welcoming hand before they suck out all life (attempting to replace it with eternal –soulless existence!)
Soda-Pop & Junk-Food & Fast-Food
Soda pops, junk food and fast food have been fingered from all sides as the source of the “obesity-pandemic.” In turn it’s been suggested that the government limit, ban and tax them or restrict their advertisement.
C.A.G.E. would like to reiterate its belief in small government as well as in the dangers of unintended consequences and the slippery slope. For instance, if rates of obesity do not decline sufficiently following a ban on junk food, will the government then try to control people’s consumption of carbohydrates? If McDonalds’ business is hurt badly by restrictions on advertisements, will all the wonderful children’s charities it heads also go under? Will banning inexpensive junk foods further erode the finances of poor households, leading in turn to other unforeseen consequences?
In the case of trans-fats, their abrupt banning in Canada and parts of the U.S. led to a very sudden and massive switch to palm oil, which is produced mainly in Borneo by razing tropical rainforests to the ground, killing the myriad species that live in these forests and replacing them with palm plantations harvested by low-paid workers. Although we certainly hope that Borneo ’s ecological crisis was not intended by the moral busybodies who banned trans-fats with the stroke of a pen, not intending such things will not undo the damage done. Of course, if producers of palm oil played a role in influencing politicians to ban trans-fats, the story looks much worse (we’re not saying this is the case – we at C.A.G.E. don’t have any evidence of this). We also hope that several years from now, science will not reverse itself yet again and declare that trans-fats are actually the healthier kind of fat (the pronouncement that got us to switch to them in the first place, 20 or so years ago).
Again, arm the people with as much information as possible and then allow them to eat what they like. The greatest impact a government can have is making certain lifestyle choices available to its people. Make sure sidewalk space is available for people to walk to work if they so choose (burning off that Big Mac in the process), set aside money for the creation of parks and reintroduce athletics to all schools, enforce strict laws regarding the labeling of foods and full-disclosure of ingredients.
And above all, remember it’s not over until the fat lady sings. What?