Obesity isn't rocket science - it's trickier

When former American First Lady Michelle Obama announced a healthy school lunches policy to counter rising rates of childhood obesity in America she suggested the solution to the problem was not complex : “This isn’t like putting a man on the moon or inventing the Internet.”

In one sense she was providing a penetrating glimpse of the obvious: you don’t need to be a nutritionist to deduce the link between too many panikeke and an expanding waistline. 

In another sense, time has proven her wrong.

In the seven years since she made that statement, and despite the combined resources of some of the world’s wealthiest Governments and the sharpest minds in public policy turning their brains to the issue, obesity statistics keep going the wrong way. 

American children are becoming more obese and so are those in most countries in the world as the twin tyrannies of cheap, calorific food and sedentary, screen-based lifestyles are combining to increase waistlines worldwide.

But the burden is not spread evenly : a 2017 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that obesity rates can vary as much as ten times between countries. 

As the report in last Thursday’s Samoa Observer made clear, Samoa is among the hardest hit. Reading that more school-aged children in this nation are obese than not was disquieting (“Samoan children twice as likely to be overweight than in region”). That this amounts to double the regional average is  even moreso.  

In many ways this is a health problem with huge future implications for our Government that we have been sleep walking toward for far too long now. 

Between 1978 to 2013 the number of men deemed obese doubled to reach 53 per cent; the proportional incressee among women was slightly less but still reached a total of 76.7 per cent.

Over a similar timeframe, 1980 to 2014, the global proportion of adults with diabetes more than doubled among men and increased by nearly 60 percent among women.

The reasons are simple and are indivisible from the subset of the problem of childhood obesity. 

While we applaud measures such as the Ministry of Health’s recent announcement of a ban on junk food in school canteens and the revival of village-based health initiatives, dietary problems begin at home. The link between a child’s parents’ being overweight and them becoming overweight themselves is well established. 

To return to Mrs. Obama’s original point, the reasons for this rapid increase are not hard to figure out. 

A 2012 study that looked at three decades of Samoan food consumption found there was a significant decrease in the consumption of complex carbohydrates such as fruit while fatty pork consumption skyrocketed as did the consumption of potato chips, pancakes, coffee, beer and sugary drinks. 

The modern Samoan diet, the authors concluded, is composed of sausage, eggs, rice, instant noodles, pancakes, cereal, papaya, cake, potato chips, ripe coconut and chop suey; traditional staples such as coconut cream dishes, seafood and taro are falling away. 

As Dame Meg Taylor, the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, said last year, current public policy initiatives are not having an impact in a region where obesity is hitting harder than most parts of the world: “The really worrying fact is that we are not making an impact,” she said. 

In this column we have previously criticised the fact that we spend well over ten times more sending patients already at the acute stages of serious illnesses overseas for treatment than preventive healthcare programmes.

A long predicted explosion in Samoa’s rate of so-called non-communicable diseases now threatens to impose a paralysing burden not just on our healthcare system but Government as a whole.

Some countries - Belgium, Chile, Finland, France, Hungary and Mexico – have simply increased the price of unhealthy foods through taxes. (We already impose hefty excises on cigarettes and liquor in Samoa).

The American state of New York famously simply banned transfats and soft drink bottle sizes the city’s Government considered unhealthy.

Other jurisdictions heave used subsidies to encourage farmers to switch to growing healthier foods. Samoa and China’s massive demonstration farm for agricultural cooperation which opened a crop variety trial station in Nu’u is one very welcome step towards making vegetables more widely available more cheaply. 

Cost, after all, has been found to have been one of the biggest factors in people’s food choices.

Earlier this year Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, worked with manufacturers to reduce the size of tinned fish and corned beef cases to counter cost of living pressures. Perhaps a similarly cooperative approach with manufacturers, importers and supermarkets would produce results on portion  sizes and ingredientistdvoo.

It may not take a rocket scientist to solve these problems, but we need to start giving some ideas lift off before it’s too late.

What do you think, Samoa? Have a great Wednesday. And God bless.  

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