Perhaps it’s just because Christmas overeating is still heavy on my mind (and other body parts) but I’ve noticed there seems to have been a lot of discussion about causes of and suggested solutions to obesity over the last few days.
Waikato University scientist, Dr Pawel Olszewski suggests sugar and fat may produce changes in the brain which resemble the effects of addictive drugs. This may have a profound impact on the way governments, health practitioners and communities plan to combat the impact of the growing incidence of obesity.
We must be careful, though, not to directly equate sugar and fat, which our bodies need, to nicotine, alcohol, THC, amphetamines etc which we can quite happily do without:
Tony Falkenstein, chief executive of Just Water International, made the connection and took it to a seemingly logical conclusion by suggesting a sugar tax. (Which, of course, would benefit his company). This drew a thoughtful rebuttal from Dr Jim McVeagh at MacDoctor:
Dr Olszewski says that while the brain responds to tasty foods in ways that have a lot in common with its reaction to drugs, he stresses there is a clear distinction between the complex mix of substances found in foods and a single compound such as morphine or nicotine. For this reason he describes over-eating patterns as “addictive-like”.
“We don’t want to send the message that if you’re eating a sandwich, that you’re consuming a drug. However palatable, high-sugar foods very often increase activity of the same brain circuits that are involved in the creation of the addictive state.
“So we believe this addictive-like behaviour stems from the effect that nutrients, in particular sugar and to some extent fat, have on the same set of brain areas that drive addiction.”
I’m inclined to agree that taxing sugar is pointless and taxing fat just becomes ridiculously complex as you attempt to define ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fats. As Jim McVeah says,
Immediately one can see the absolute pointlessness of a sugar tax. Potatoes, white bread, rice and pasta become sugar in the body as fast as pure cane sugar and nearly as fast as glucose powder. Taxing sugar is like sticking your finger in the dyke when the tsunami alarm has just gone off. And taxing carbohydrates in general is just adding a tax to nearly all food.
So if an excise-type tax were to be used in an attempt to curb obesity, the only logical approach I can think of is for it to be based on calorie density. Extremely calorie dense foods tend to be those that we ought only to eat occasionally although I expect there will be exceptions. A similar effect could be achieved by taking GST off low-calorie density foods. Both approaches have flow-on consequences that would have to be thought through before suggesting that either is worth implementing.
all that causes obesity is taking in more calories than you burn up.
Add to the mix research released from Ohio State University this week that shows the attachment between mothers and toddlers is linked with incidence of obesity and you quickly get the picture that obesity is not straight forward and solutions will be neither singular nor simple.
Obesity is a significant driver of the increasing cost of healthcare and therefore cannot be ignored. Developing prevention and treatment strategies is the responsibility of governments as much as it is the responsibility of parents, communities and individuals.