In the global war on fat, any modest victory is worth celebrating. So I am happy to bring the news that sales of Vachon cakes are in steep decline. These regional delicacies – legendary for their empty calories, their utter lack of taste, and their infinite shelf life – have been a staple of Quebeckers’ diets for generations. Now, to the relief of public health officials, Quebeckers are abandoning their Jos. Louis and switching to healthier fare.
Or are they? The hottest item on today’s trendy menus is another Quebec specialty, poutine. Upscale poutine, to be sure, with hand-cut French fries, pulled-pork gravy and artisanal cheese curds. For those who want to double down, there’s even pizza poutine. In the war on fat, it’s one step forward and one step back.
Among the most striking features of the obesity epidemic is that for the first time in human history, poorer people (the kind who like to eat Vachon cakes) are fatter than richer ones. Obesity, like smoking, is inversely correlated to socioeconomic status. If you live in Kitsilano or Manhattan (and read the Globe and Mail) you are likely to be slim, but if you live in Parkdale or the Bronx (and read the National Enquirer), you’re more likely to be overweight. The gap for women is especially dramatic. In the U.S., according to the Population Reference Bureau, 35.6 per cent of women in the lowest income group are obese, compared with 15.5 per cent in the highest income group.
Why is this the case? The common explanation is that poorer people have less access to healthy food and exercise. Fast food and junk food are also cheap – cheaper than nutritious food, and also more convenient. It’s widely thought that poorer people live in “food deserts,” where healthy food is hard to get. By contrast, higher income families live near good grocery stores and have cars to get to them.
For policy makers, the implications are clear. We should work to close the inequality gap. As one childhood obesity expert, H. Mollie Greves Grow, puts it, “We should strive for all families to have access to walkable neighbourhoods, safe parks, healthy grocery store options, and active schools. Tax dollars, voters, community planners, builders, and green spaces can all help make an impact.”
Safe parks and active schools are all fine things, to be sure. But before we start subsidizing vegetables and banning school bake sales, perhaps we need a supersized reality check. Some of our assumptions about the causes of obesity are wrong. And many of the fixes proposed by policy makers just won’t work.
The most obvious example is exercise. Despite the many benefits of physical activity – improving your fitness level, tearing yourself away from the screen, liberating those endorphins – the science is crystal clear that exercise is not an effective weight-loss tool. It’s a simple matter of arithmetic. Tragically, you would have to run approximately two and a half miles to burn off one Jos. Louis.
In other words, it doesn’t matter how much gym class we force the kids to take, or how many walking paths we build, or whether we drive our cars to work or bike. Exercise may improve our outlook and increase our life span, but it won’t reduce our weight.
As for food deserts, they seem to be a myth. According to new findings reported in the New York Times, people who live in poor urban neighbourhoods have ample access to every type of food, healthy and otherwise. As obesity expert Kelly Brownell told the Times, “If you are looking for what you hope will change obesity, healthy food access is probably just wishful thinking.”
The problem is that people like fast food. They like its salty, fatty taste, washed down by quarts of sugar. Fast food is engineered to be addictive. Nor is it true that healthy food is more expensive. You can walk into any grocery store and buy enough rice and beans and vegetables and meat to feed your family for a few bucks a week. The catch is that healthy food isn’t fast. Generally you have to cook it, and people have forgotten how. It is not true that people don’t have time to cook and shop. Most people have hours and hours of time to watch TV and surf the Internet. And that is what they’d rather do.
Rich people eat lots of fast food too. The difference is that they tend to choose sushi or takeout salmon. They wouldn’t be caught dead eating a Big Mac, which they regard as poison. Unlike poorer people, they are under relentless social pressure to be slim. Then there are the people in the middle, who are desperate to lose weight but can’t, no matter how hard they try.
After two decades of hectoring from public-health officials, the war on obesity is stuck in the mud. As Francis Collins, the leading public health official in the United States, told Newsweek, “We are struggling to figure this out.” But according to some, the problem is that we haven’t gone nearly far enough. “We have evolved to need coercion,” writes Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard professor of evolutionary biology, who argues that because we can’t control our appetite for sugar, the state must do it for us.
In the meantime, prepare yourself for the latest enemy attack: Pizza vending machines. They are coming soon to a mall near you. As I said, it’s one step forward and one step back.