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Fat is a social issue

Posted - Sep. 7, 2004 at 1:40 p.m.



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WASHINGTON, Sep 07, 2004 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- The post-Labor Day blues can hit hard when those extra inches gained at the beach roll up around the waist as we settle back into the office chair.

Weight gain and -- worse -- obesity are not just a problem in the United States. Even as President Bill Clinton recovers from surgery from heart disease he attributes in part to poor eating habits, the British are closely scrutinizing their own increasingly unhealthy relationship with food.

In May the British Government's Commons Health Select Committee published a report showing that over the past 25 years, obesity rates had risen by 400 percent. It warned that by 2020 one-third of adults and half of all children in Britain could be obese.

Already two-thirds of adults and 20 percent of children are overweight or obese, compared to 30 percent of adults clinically obese in the United States. Obesity costs Britain's National Health Service roughly $5.55 billion a year.

"Fattism" is the one remaining acceptable prejudice, carrying with it the perception that being fat is a choice. But overweight people are also judged as lazy, self-indulgent and consequently unattractive. They are likely to find it harder to get jobs and often earn less than their slimmer co-workers. Overweight people, the slim believe, lack the kind of self-control that they have been able to practice themselves, a view that feeds an increasing bias against the obese.

Rather than encourage a change in lifestyle, critical focus on the overweight has turned fatness into a highly personal problem, according to experts like psychologist Susie Orbach, author of "Fat is a Feminist Issue." Not only are the overweight aware that diets don't work indefinitely, but that the association of fat with being bad fosters the anti-fat bias.

A study by Liverpool University in England found that prejudices against the overweight were even stretched to cover their friends. They were seen as less attractive than people with slim friends.

A family doctor in Nottingham, a city of modest size north of London, has been alarmed enough to set up a task force to battle the problem under the working title of Nutritional and Physical Activity Taskforce.

He told BBC News Online: "Type 2 diabetes is set to double by 2010. Heart disease, although we've become more successful at treating it, is occurring in greater frequency. The causes of obesity are many. There is no single, simple cause; there is no single, simple solution."

He's backed by Member of Parliament Howard Stoate, another doctor, who says: "Doing nothing is not an option. The government cannot hope to tackle this alone. In one way or another it affects everybody, and everybody has a role to play."

The BBC certainly believes it has one. Beginning Thursday it will air "Fat Nation" on BBC Television with a slated two-year run. It's billed as a healthy-lifestyle program that aims for a longer-term approach to weight loss than crash dieting.

A popular television host will offer a "live cocktail of humor, celebrity and entertainment laced with practical advice on lifestyle changes that really can extend your life." The program will broadcast from a take-out on an ordinary street in Birmingham, a city in the English Midlands. Entertainment, music and sports celebrities will pass on their own diet and fitness experiences and tips, and the program will monitor the health and fitness of the neighbors on a lifestyle-changing regimen.

Says program producer Virginia Hill, "If we don't do something about this, the next generation will die before their parents." She points out, "Billions of pounds is spent on advertising foods and drinks which aren't good for us, but very little is spent in comparison to get good nutritional advice across to parents and children."

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

Copyright 2004 by United Press International.

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