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The obesity epidemic: Maybe I’m just embarrassed

In my last rant post, I belittled the obesity problems that we are facing in Canada. I can certainly acknowledge that the prevalence of processed foods in Canadian diets, with ever-growing package sizes and salt and sugar quantities, is concerning. I can also acknowledge that most of the children I know likely do less physical activity that what is considered the healthy norm. But throwing the term “obesity epidemic” about just feels wrong to me.

I had a few dissenters in my comments (which I love – thank you for sharing your views!) on that post and it made me question why exactly it feels wrong … Is it because I don’t want to acknowledge the issue? Or perhaps I am embarrassed about crunching the numbers and realizing that this “obese” category  being discussed is actually a category into which I fall?

I’ve decided that it is indeed because I am embarrassed. And here’s why:

  • 33.4 million people live with HIV/AIDS worldwide, the vast majority of whom are in low- and middle-income countries. An estimated 2.7 million people were newly infected with the virus in 2008 (source: WHO).
  • 1.5 million children under the age of five die each year from unsafe water and poor sanitation. That is more than 4,100 deaths per day (source: WaterCan).
  • Diarrhoea is the second leading cause of death among children under five globally. Nearly one in five child deaths – about 1.5 million each year – is due to diarrhoea. Today, only 39 per cent of children with diarrhoea in developing countries receive the recommended treatment, and limited trend data suggest that there has been little progress since 2000 (source: UNICEF/WHO).
  • In 2008, malaria caused nearly one million deaths, mostly among African children. Malaria is preventable and curable (source: WHO). 
  • In 2010, the number of children worldwide who have lost one or both parents to AIDS is expected to reach 25 million – equivalent to the number of people living in New York, Paris, and Bangkok combined. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, over 15 million children have been orphaned by the pandemic (source: World AIDS Orphans Day).

I sit back and imagine … if I lived in a community facing one of the above epidemics, how would I feel about reading a headline from Canada about an “obesity epidemic”? I can’t answer this question, since I’ll never know how it feels to face such life-threatening and difficult life circumstances. But I can tell you that if I was sitting beside this same person who was reading that headline, I’d definitely be embarrassed. Shamefaced, actually.


  1. These past few days I caught myself thinking about the points you raised in your previous post. And I have to say, this follow-up post is bang on too.

    When I was in Cambodia talking with locals, it would never fail to astonish when I mentioned that poor people suffer disproportionately from obesity in Canada.

    Obesity is certainly an important problem, one of many that we need to face. But I often think a lack of perspective is just as big of one.

  2. Seeing as I do live in a community that is affected by the plagues that your stats outline I can say that it is hard to explain our food habits to people who ask about them here.

    I come from a place where we can afford to kill ourselves with our consumer habits and where it has become an epidemic to do so. On this side, people aspire to do the same.

    I am embarrassed when people who wish to honour an esteemed guest will walk through their gardens full of ripe tropical fruit that could make a beautiful refreshing drink and instead go to a the local equivalent of a corner store and buy sodas that are cheap for me but not for someone who’s income is less than $200/month which is the minimum wage here.

    I have seen advertising and sales points for Coke hours walk from anything that might be called a road or a clinic or a school…at which point I start getting angry…especially when my water canteen was empty…

    We teach that our bodies are our temples yet our most most ubiquitous offerings (from sodas to small arms) to this part of the world reinforce consumption to the point of destruction on so many levels.

    I’m reading General Dallaire’s most recent book “They Fight Like Soldiers But They Die Like Children” about his work to understand and stop the use of children conflict…I think I’m a little keyed up.

    Thanks for your thoughts Julie. I didn’t read your previous post on the fat epidemic because there were more pressing stories on my comptuer screen but now I’m going to go back and have a look at it and the comments.

    All the best,

  3. Hear, hear!

  4. Hi Julie:
    I agree it’s embarrassing, but it’s also a global health issue. Check this page at WHO…

  5. i’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately and i enjoyed reading both your posts and the comments. i think it becomes clear that this “obesity epidemic” has many levels. there’s the related illness’, shortened life, health care costs and the question of the food industry as a whole. even if a parent buys only fresh ingredients from the grocery store, there is no guarantee about what kinds of chemicals will be in their meat and vegetables.

    and this post really does put some perspective on the whole thing, but in no way should it decrease people’s concerns about what is happening in their own country. i like what krista said, “consumption to the point of destruction”, this says it all to me. it relates to the obesity problem and problems around the world, like the mentioned malaria or diarrhea. north americans have a serious problem with over consuming, that is just unsustainable. it affects the rest of the world, and it absolutely affects our own country.

    i could go on and on about this, but will stop before it becomes a novel. good posts and it’s wonderful to see everyone’s different opinions.

  6. I do agree that it is embarrassing, but perhaps for a different reason that you stated.

    I think it is embarrassing because, to a great extent, this “epidemic” is caused by our overconsumption, our obsession with convenience, and our “have have have” society.

    When we compare our suffering due to our own excess and greed with the suffering of people in other countries, then yes, I am embarrassed. It is an epidemic, but it is one that is within our control to reverse on a societal level.

    That doesn’t mean that each person who is obese can necessarily easily overcome the situation they are in. However, as a society, I think that we can address this problem and we should.

  7. Ads, Krista, Laura, Pam, Meg and Annie – Thank you for joining in on this topic. It is really crazy to think that while others are wasting away from lack of food or water, we are overconsuming to the point where we have an “obesity epidemic” on our hands. It’s something on my mind a lot now and I hope you’ll continue to join in on the convo!

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