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Dieting – The Blame Game Intensifies

When no-one knows what's going on, or where to look for answers and when the panic begins to set it – that's when the witch hunts begin.

It's starting to get nastier as we journey through yet another year amid claims of an ever expanding obesity problem, yet still with no serious answers being advanced by either our political leaders or through the mass media.

In recent times the debate has already segmented along predictable political and class lines. The Right sees it all as a matter of personal responsibility (which is synonymous with morality, so frequently a convenient differentiator from people not quite like us).

The Left has its own over-simplistic assumptions. Just as Big Oil must take the lion's share of responsibility for our growing environmental crisis, so it is Big Food which must accept prime blame for our growing obesity crisis.

In Europe, if it is the US's Big Food which can be fingered, all the better – it fits in with the existing anti-US world view blame game.

The net upshot of this existing polarization is to be expected – very little practical or useful will now be discussed or advanced within the political arena. The Right may posit that non-slimming refuseniks can be punished with State provision disenfranchisement (welfare benefits, health care entitlement etc.). Talk of weight-driven apartheid might fuel eager newspaper headline writers – but it ain't going to happen. It's crass.

Almost equally ill-conceived is selective grandstanding against bogeymen food producers. Whether in the final analysis it is production which feeds consumption, or consumption drives production, only strict State rationing of food would control the type and quantity of foodstuffs being issued. That ain't going to happen either.

And beyond the infeasibility of direct intervention, the State is also largely impotent at the food advice level. Both the US and UK governments have been issuing dietary advice to their citizens for a full century now. The emphasis has been on variety, moderation and a concentration on grains, vegetables and fruits, with leaner meat in modest quantities. Lacking the allure of quack dieting, such advice has generally been all-but ignored and there is little reason to believe that it will not continue to be so.

So, it is all becoming increasingly personal, led by the media and followed by an increasingly frustrated State.

There are the “Fat Kids Camp” shows, constructed with all the delicacy of 19th Century circus freak acts. The usual opening assumption of these is that the parents are to blame, implicit in taking the children off to some rural quasi-prison camp, beyond the influence of incompetent moms and dads. However the focus of recrimination usually shifts during the course of these shows, from the implied parental failing to overt attacks on the kids themselves.

Then there are the “Celebrity Fat Schools”, wherein the blame game rapidly becomes very much self-blame, with excruciatingly painful mea culpa admissions forming the staple fare.

Now the UK State has stepped in and trumped them all – for the time being, at least. Social workers are placing obese children on the Child Protection Register, a measure previously reserved for cases of suspected neglect, or physical or sexual abuse. In extreme cases children have been placed in foster care where is has been held that parents' failures to enforce weight loss on their children has exacerbated various health conditions.

Ironically this comes at a time when there are no targets for doctors to achieve in relation to obesity per se amidst the plethora of measures against which their performance is assessed. Inconsistent? - no more so than most facets of this highly confused arena.

So, who is to blame? - This is the most important question currently being widely asked. It is most important in this context because it is the wrong question. Until we move away from the finger pointing of the blame games, there will be little room for a calmer and more appropriate consideration of causation.

Let's go back to the kids: to their schools, in fact. How about putting self-image and self-esteem on the curriculum? Add the gift of choice, set against the backdrop of social influences. To enable this we could overlay a sense of personal reflexiveness to establish habits of planning, coupled with a sense of responsibility, service and fulfillment.

But, of course, we don't talk of these fancy things. They're embarrassing; for weirdos only. It's far safer to keep your head down and swallow the misery along with a bellyful of junk.

So we talk about dieting instead and choose to perpetuate the big lie, even though we know it doesn't work. And can anyone, hand on heart, now sincerely claim that cutting off an overweight person's State entitlements offers a miracle cure, or that fining a US food manufacturer over some claimed gaudy, sleight of hand advertising will roll back the flab from entire nations? This is vapid posturing.

In fact, if we do still wish to apportion a small slice of blame, let's ask why it is that the things we don't teach our children are those which they require most to nourish growing lives? Is it because generally we so ill-understand these fundamentals ourselves? This, though, is really a matter for reflection and education, not blind hysteria.

There's a little bit more to this than making fat kids cry.

About the Author: Author Malcolm Evans is founder and secretary of The Weight Foundation charity, which researches dieting and provides analysis and commentary on weight loss culture.

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