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What has population and growth got to do with obesity?

by Professor Garry Egger

Obesity is now the biggest epidemic the world has ever seen – bigger in numbers than the bubonic plague of the 14th century or the great influenza epidemic of 1918. Yet despite its obvious causes – over-eating, inactivity and an (over-rated) influence of genes – no single country has been able to slow the epidemic down.

Over 15% of the world’s population are now overweight or obese (in Australia the figure is 56%) – and all this only since around 1980!

The question that has to be asked is why? How is it that humans have existed in some form for probably a million years with very few ever asking the question ‘does my bum look too big in this?’, but that obesity has become rampant in the last 30 years? 

Strangely enough, the answer seems to be from being too successful. Progress has been (over the last 200 years) based on economic growth, a measure of the throughput of consumption. Up to a point, this has been great for humanity: we’ve all become more wealthy, longevity has more than doubled, infectious diseases have become just nuisances rather than major killers, and health care is generally the best that money can buy.

 But growth is finite. And as with all investments, there comes a time when further input leads to diminishing returns. As humans though, we’re not content to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labours at this point.  We want more – and more, until the costs start to outweigh the benefits.

Until around 1980, the consumption base of economic growth served to satisfy real needs – food, clothing, housing, health etc. But once these had been satisfied, further consumption became necessary simply to satisfy the growth machine. (If you look up your dictionary, synonyms for ‘consume’ are: ‘eat’, drink’, guzzle’, get through’, ‘devour’, ‘munch through,’ ‘chomp through’ – all good ways to get fat, while co-incidentally adding to economic growth).  This has not only led to a rise in obesity, but also to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and hence climate change.

 Another way to look at this comes from the New Economics Foundation in the UK:

 “From birth to maturity a hamster doubles its weight each week. If, then, instead of levelling off in maturity as animals (and all growing systems) do, the hamster continues to double its weight each week, on its first birthday we would be facing a nine billion tonne hamster… there is a reason why in nature things do not grow indefinitely.”

So growth – beyond a point – and obesity, as well as the obesity-related diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, are related. As pointed out by one analyst: “Growth beyond maturity is either obesity or cancer.” But how, I hear you ask, is population involved in this?

Traditionally, economic growth has been driven by three main factors: resource discovery, technological change and population growth. The latter is the easiest – and ‘laziest’ way of doing this. Increasing the number of people to whom to sell increasingly redundant products is a no-brainer for developers, politicians and unthinking media and big business. The more people, the bigger the market, the more sales of fattening products that are needed to fuel the growth engine, without adding anything to real human needs.

It is important at this point to re-state that this hasn’t always been the case: that increased population and economic growth have been tremendously important for human gains – to a point. But life is dynamic and the need for change is brought on even more rapidly by change itself.

It’s also important to recognise that this doesn’t spell the death knell of entrepreneurship, or even development. In fact, it will be innovation, driven by personal achievement that is likely to be the only way to help us change a system that even the early economists – JS Mill, JM Keynes, Adam Smith etc. – saw would have to be modified to a steady-state system at some stage.

In the first instance however we need a greater awareness of the issue. And this can only happen through increasing public debate, bringing in the economists who currently know that growth can’t continue indefinitely, but who are hiding their heads in the sand so they don’t have to think about the alternatives. We need more with a background in business – and not just academics – to bring this to the public attention. And more people speaking out in support. After sizzling for years, the real debate has only just begun to fire up. Dick Smith’s documentary (‘The Population Puzzle’) will play an dynamic part in this.

 Dr Garry Egger is Professor of Lifestyle Medicine at Southern Cross University and an advisor to the World Health Organisation on chronic disease. He was the originator of the GutBusters, men’s ‘waist loss’ program and is joint author of “Planet Obesity: How we are eating ourselves and our planet to death.” (Allen and Unwin).


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