The Ethics, Morality And Politics Of Obesity

July 21, 2007
in search of sanity

As I stood by looking at this 190 kilo woman who'd come to give birth, I was filled not just with a sense of dread, obviously because she’d be at a high risk of several complications during her labour and delivery, but also a deep sense of  haunting poignancy.

As a medical student in India at one of the large Government hospitals, I’d seen these emaciated, starved, malnourished adults and children who’d come in suffering from the effects of malnutrition. They had no means to feed themselves and their families better.

This woman had a similar problem, only one of plenty rather than scarcity. She’d stuffed herself with too much food over the years and was basically as unhealthy as someone suffering from undernutrition. The dictionary definition of a malnourished person is one who is “weak and in bad health because of a lack of food or because of a lack of the types of food necessary for good health”. By this token, about a quarter of the men and just under a fifth of the women in the UK are malnourished as these people are suffering from obesity. Indeed obesity rates in the UK are thought to have tripled since the early 80’s.

This is now an epidemic. The burden on the health services is immense as these people are at increased risk of arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, strokes and certain cancers. The implications in terms of resource allocation and budgeting of the health care facilities can only be imagined. More concerning perhaps is the fact that this has percolated to the younger generation and indeed according to current statistics, more than a third of 12 year olds are overweight in Scotland alone. Furthermore, twenty percent of three and a half year olds are overweight and about nine percent are frankly obese! 

It is a sad irony and a true paradox of modern times that in another corner of this world, millions struggle to find two square meals a day. Children spend most of their childhood in the struggle to survive. Not all do. About 25,000 people worldwide die every day of hunger or hunger related causes. This is one person every three and a half seconds. (United Nations figures). Unfortunately it is children and minors that bear the brunt of horrendous poverty as they are the ones maximally exposed to its ill effects and are also more likely to succumb in the battle for survival.

But then everything I’ve said here is part of daily newspaper headlines. There is this mammoth army of nameless, faceless adults and children in some obsolete corner of the world, that we are all aware of, but choose to ignore. For, like everything else in the newspapers, it is but another news item, struggling for print space with that all important item about Paris Hilton’s jail trauma.

In some way we are all suffering from ‘sympathy fatigue’ - from an emotional numbness arising from far too many issues vying for attention. Bob Geldof, who has  tirelessly  crusaded to alleviate poverty in Africa through the Band Aid and Live 8 fundraising concerts, recently reacted to the apathy faced by his campaign “I don't know how to describe 5 million starving children any more”

This is the stark truth of our times.

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