The end of this year, hundreds of millions of pounds will have been spent on swine flu: hundreds of millions on what has turned out to be a mild breaking news flu virus. Yes, of course it’s wiser to be safe than sorry: the precautions that have been taken are commendable. It might have been an altogether different story.
However, what this whole episode has highlighted is the amount of money, time and effort we are prepared to throw at an unknown flu virus which might have resulted in a much higher annual flu mortality rate, but yet we do precious little to address the obesity epidemic, a killer which is the cause of millions of deaths across the world every year.
In Europe this year, 400,000 people will die due to excess weight. Weight related diseases will account for many more hundreds of thousands of deaths on top of that. This is an epidemic that is getting worse every year. The real killer on the block is obesity, not swine flu – and what is more, it is contagious!
Contagious? Yes, that’s right, it’s contagious. Recent research has revealed that obesity is socially contagious. It is now socially acceptable to be overweight or obese. There is no stigma at all. Bad eating and lifestyle habits rule. People have come to think that it’s okay to be ‘bigger’ if all the people around them are ‘bigger’ – and this sensibility spreads. What has happened in communities across the world is that the social norm as to what counts as an appropriate body size has changed. The reality is that social acceptability of being overweight or obese is probably the main reason why it is proving to be such a hard problem to beat.
All is not lost! The fact that obesity now has a social dimension opens up new opportunities to deal with the problem. If being overweight or obese is socially contagious it is not unreasonable to believe that ‘being slim’ can be socially contagious too. The key to the problem is to change people’s behaviour and the best way of doing this is to learn new habits – slim habits.
The best driver for change is not the individual, it’s the community. By harnessing the power and the enthusiasm of the community in a common cause to make change, it is possible to return to a social norm that supports healthy eating and lifestyle habits. By using a behaviour change programme like the Slim Habit and by providing long term guidance and support, communities have it within their power to bring the obesity crisis to an end. A crisis that is causing totally unnecessary death and suffering and one that is sapping the energy and vitality of the nation.
It’s not that Governments have lacked the will to do something about the obesity crisis, they have just not known what to do to. The social dimension means things have changed. There is now a very simple and relatively inexpensive answer to the problem. It’s time to focus on behaviour change.