Fionola Meredith: Being obese can make you very ill, but fat-shaming people is not helping them
Treat the mind, not the body, if you want to solve the obesity epidemic, says Fionola Meredith
It's been a bad week to be a fat person. A new Cancer Research UK study was published showing that being overweight now causes more cases of four common cancers than smoking cigarettes. The shock finding is that excess weight is a larger factor in kidney, bowel, ovarian and liver cancer than tobacco.
It's not that smokers are off the hook. Smoking is still the UK's biggest preventable cause of cancer - it's much more likely to lead to a diagnosis than being fat. But the fact is that far fewer of us are lighting up these days, while far more are tipping the scales at dangerously obese levels.
The UK is now the most obese nation in Western Europe, with about a third of people substantially overweight.
Not only does that increase the likelihood of cancer, it also puts people at risk of nasty chronic conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Some 9% of the NHS budget is currently being used to treat diabetes alone.
So I think we're justified in calling the obesity epidemic a public health crisis. This gargantuan problem is only going to get worse.
The question is, what the heck do we do about it? The Government can't go around performing forcible stomach-stapling operations. What and how we choose to eat is a private, individual matter - even if the public health consequences are frightening.
Cancer Research UK (CRUK) is already getting a kicking for its approach to the matter. Its new billboard campaign shows three classic-looking cigarette packets, each bearing the message 'Obesity is a cause of cancer too'.
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No doubt we'll be seeing them in Northern Ireland soon since we're just as chubby here as the rest of the UK.
Predictably, the charity has been accused of "fat-shaming" tactics for deploying these ads. But CRUK is simply pointing out the unpalatable truth. Obesity, like smoking, can make you seriously sick.
It's a matter of scientific evidence, not opinion. The intent is not to shame or blame, it's to highlight the sizeable risk. What the individual then decides to do with that information is up to them.
That said, fat-shaming is a very real and pernicious phenomenon in our society. It emerges in the casual insults that the substantially overweight - particularly women - endure in the street, and of course it also leaks out as malicious jibes in the sewers of social media.
Even where it goes unspoken, the prejudice still lurks in people's minds: that fat people are to blame for their size because they are lazy, stupid or greedy.
How callous, how ignorant, how unfair.
While it's true that the more calories you take in and don't expend the fatter you'll get, problems with excess weight are rarely simple, which is why they aren't easily solved, and why the vast majority of diets fail.
What amazes me is that in all the hand-wringing talk of sugar taxes or junk food marketing bans there is so little emphasis placed on the psychological side of the problem.
Instead of punishing the poorest with so-called "sin" taxes on fattening foods, why not begin by asking why so many millions of people are over-eating to the point of endangering their health?
I don't buy the line that the general public needs to be educated about healthy food and exercise. That's patronising rubbish: you don't need a PhD in nutritional sciences to tell the difference between an apple and a bucket of KFC. People know fine rightly. They understand that eating six jumbo packets of crisps a night isn't good for them. But they are still doing it anyway - which takes us back to the question of why?
Disordered eating often comes from a place of unspoken misery, and an unconscious desire to seek comfort, or to anaesthetise yourself from the pain of life. Stuffing that great big hole in the soul.
Start dealing with the underlying despair, which may be the deepest cause of your unhealthy relationship with food, and you might find that your weight becomes much less of a problem, all by itself (this is even more relevant in a traumatised society like Northern Ireland, still struggling to process the grim years of terror).
Treating people like machines to be trained or reprogrammed by various public health initiatives to eat properly, thus saving themselves and the NHS from an epidemic of weight-related diseases, will not solve the obesity crisis.
That's because we're not machines.
But if you treat people like the complex, tender, many-layered human beings that they are, and invest in better mental health support for the morbidly obese, then you might start getting somewhere.
Look after the mind, since that is where the desire to over-eat starts, and the body will naturally follow.