Sat, Aug 11, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Obesity constitutes grave threat

By Chiang Sheng 江盛

Unlike the anti-obesity campaigns found in Taiwan, the US has already reached the point where it is using political and financial initiatives to fight obesity. In May, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg began pushing for anti-obesity legislation that bans large sugary drinks. If the legislation passes, it would prohibit fast-food chains and stores from selling sugary drinks larger than about half a liter. Currently, 40 states in the US have taxes levied against sugary beverages. The New York restriction, however, is of paramount significance because although no one believes that such a minor stricture could bring about any meaningful change in US obesity levels, Bloomberg’s action represents the zealous activist nature of US politicians.

In the US, about one-third of adults are obese, while another third are considered overweight, and this obesity trend among Americans has been steadily growing year after year. Obese people are predisposed to Type 2 diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea, joint issues in the spine and knees, and high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hyperlipidemia and cardiovascular disease as well as certain cancers, making them a huge burden on medical, political and financial systems.

The Bureau of Health Promotion under Taiwan’s Department of Health (DOH) recently said that the number of Taiwanese dying of obesity-related causes has risen by 7.4 percent, adding that the related medical expenditures are 1.25 times those of cancer.

In more direct terms, obesity-related diseases have the potential to significantly exacerbate the financial crisis of the National Healthcare Insurance system. According to data recently released by the DOH that was taken from 1.46 million health examinations, 40 percent of Taiwanese men over the age of 40 have excessive waistlines, meaning that obesity is also becoming a serious issue in Taiwan as well.

South Pacific island nations such as Nauru, Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga and Palau have some of the highest obesity rates in the world. In Nauru, for example, 95 percent of people over the age of 15 are obese. This modern phenomenon is an evolutionary omen. Vegetables, fruits, fish and shellfish, along with the arable land that the South Pacific islanders depended on for subsistence in the past, have sharply dwindled due to mining, tourism and the construction of new buildings. As abrupt changes in the environment occurred, traditional farming and fishing practices were no longer enough to cater to the growing demand of increasing populations, and islanders have subsequently been forced to rely on imported processed foods, such as canned ham and salt-cured beef.

As exercise levels have decreased and fatty foods and sugary drinks become more prevalent, the figure of the Austronesian woman as depicted in the paintings of 19th-century painter Paul Gauguin has become a thing of the past. Islands are evolutionary laboratories. As food becomes limited, the smaller the animal, the greater the evolutionary advantage it possesses. The pygmy rhinos and elephants along with the 1m tall Homo floresiensis that were found in Indonesia several years back are all evidence of this.

However, the rapidly increasing obesity rate in South Pacific island nations provides us with an evolutionary warning --— the hunting and gathering humans that were faced with the threat of starvation for most of history are now faced with the threat of being bound to an environment inundated with abundant and affordable food.

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