July 18, 2005 | Graham

Is obesity a product of mummy culture?

When I defended fast food against the charge that it was to blame for our increasing obesity, most comments said that obesity was the result of lack of exercise. I think that is a superficial explanation too, so I wanted to throw some more straws in the wind which suggest to me that culture in general, and mums in particular, are to blame.
In her new book French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure Mireille Guiliano tackles the question of why the French, whose diet is relatively high in fat, don’t get obese. Her answer is that they eat smaller portions and don’t gorge. Why? Because they have a culture where they love food and they eat for enjoyment, not to get full. So far, so good. If calories in equal calories out, you don’t get fat, so tinkering with the “in” side of the equation – eating – can be just as effective as tinkering with the “out” side – exercise.
So why does our culture tend to gorge? Is it because we hate food, or is something else at play? I’d suggest it is because we are living in cultures which have lost their confidence and this is the root cause of obesity. Here are a couple of examples.
The Movie Supersize Me shows what can happen to a man who lives only on Macdonald’s and eats the largest portions that they will serve him. But almost every suburban household I know plays its own version of supersizing. Cooks (almost always mothers, but fathers do the same thing with the barbeque) habitually over-cater. Why? For an older generation it could have been related to the Depression, but these days it’s “all about the cook”. If plates aren’t full to over-flowing someone might think they don’t care or love their children enough.
Fear, as various commentators have noted, is a potent factor in selling political solutions. It is also a factor in selling food profitably. “Family size” returns greater profits. It allows for economies of scale in packaging and distribution, at the same time that it insures suburban providores against the fear that people will think poorly of them because their children are too thin. A win for food manufacturers, and for fearful mums and dads.
Fearful mums and dads are also not just pumping additional calories into kids, but when the inevitable adipose tissue turns up they’re not prepared to talk to kids about it. The children might get a complex about food, and eat even more, or worse, become anorexic. This is not just an abstract issue for me. I’ve been told by mothers and teachers that I can’t talk to a young lady close to me about her weight because “you will give her anorexia”. Doctors (who should know better) have even produced graphs to prove she is within average parameters, thus conjuring away the need to talk, even when the pinch test proves conclusively she is not average. How do you sensibly discuss good food attitudes with children when you fear that the whole of society will blame you if those kids later develop health problems despite, not because of, your intervention? Too hard for most. Better to lie.
Fear also works on the output side. Yesterday’s Sunday Mail carried a story headed “Enemy at the gate” about the fears that suburban parents have that their children will be abducted if they let them walk to school. Despite the fact that there has not been a rise in crime, or abductions of children, since the 60s and 70s when most of us did walk to school, parents have worked themselves into such a state they they want their children to live in a bubble. And children who live in bubbles inevitably become fat, especially if they are being super-sized at home.
The SM article quoted a survey into attitudes and said that it showed similar results to surveys taken in the US, Canada and Britain – all the major Anglo-Saxon countries. Is it coincidental that there is also a “fat epidemic” in all of these countries? I don’t think so. I think it is a product of a lack of confidence in ourselves and our culture. Perhaps the real reason the French don’t get fat and we do, is that they have never for one moment doubted that Paris is the centre of the world. It’s time to get comfortable in our skins, before we burst out of them.

Posted by Graham at 5:34 am | Comments (4) |
Filed under: General


  1. leg pulling irony tags:
    You shouldn’t tell people this Graham, just imagine how many people will soon be suing their parents for over feeding and being over protective? People will be now be blaming all of their personality defects on their overprotected and fearful childhood.

    Comment by Benno — July 18, 2005 @ 12:29 pm

  2. Grahame, More to the point – is obesity a villain? Scientific American has a recent (June 2005) article – Obesity: an Overblown Epidemic? It discusses recent and forthcoming books by academic researchers who argue that that the consequences of obesity are far less dire than commonly suggested by obesity experts, government authorities and media reports. Despite obesity (in adults and children)doubling in the US since 1980 the predicted increases in mortality from heart disease and stroke have not materialized.
    The BMI is now slowly being accepted as a flawed measurement that does not allow for the 50 to 80 percent of variation of fatness due to genetic differences with the US and undoubtedly the Australian population. The use of the BMI and the proliferation of a widening range of weight loss drugs marketed by powerful drug companies have led to countless health authorities, and the media exaggerating the real risks of fat and the feasibility of weight loss.
    Consider the stigma faced by the obese or even just “overweight” child today.

    Comment by jo page — July 18, 2005 @ 2:55 pm

  3. Morbid obesity (defined as a BMI of 30+) is a medical problem and as such should be considered on the basis of clinical trials, observational studies and epidemiological trials using scientific data rather than mere backyard speculation.
    There is a clear and unambiguous link between obesity and increased risk of cardiac events and diabetes type 2. There is a clear and unambiguous trend in Anglo-Saxon societies of rapidly increasing prevalence of obesity.
    The causes of obesity are relatively easy to define – psycho-social factors, diet, sedentary behaviours. With an ageing population, it would be absolutely stupid for people to deny that we have a problem on our hands.
    Diet as a solitary factor is simple to control. Limiting kJ intake to 1400kJ per day is a good start – perhaps even less for those with a sedentary lifestyle. If the diet is difficult to control due to psycho-social factors then a psychologist or psychiatrist needs to be consulted.
    Personally I would prefer not to have to have to pay higher taxes to pay for the ballooning prevalence of medical problems associated with obesity when in 99% of cases the problem is reversible. People that deny the looming problem of obesity really do have their heads in the sand on this one!

    Comment by Antonio — July 18, 2005 @ 3:24 pm

  4. Hi, as adults we need to take responsibility for our own lives..no good blaming Mummy who MADE us empty our plates, or fast food outlets or other factors. lack of education and greed, linked of course with self esteem, are the main culprits. it takes time, but the taste buds can be re-educated so that fresh simple foods become the ones you crave and looking at rich, fatty creamy foods one formerly craved are no longer diserable. it is then easy to maintain HEALTH and weight is no longer a problem. I know,because after having cancer i changed my diet. and at 78 am much fitter than i was at 40. My husband of nearly 84 (who has been on the same type of food also ) can still do a hard day’s work and people are surprisd to learn his real age. How do we educate our young folk to learn this way of eating before the cost of providing for the sick and ailing grows even higher ?

    Comment by Joy Walter — July 21, 2005 @ 11:50 am

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