Naomi Alderman: The sad truth about obesity

Overweight people now outnumber the hungry across the world. Hurrah! Let's have a street party. Famine, one of the gravest threats to human life throughout history, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, is on the wane! Imagine the celebrations if we heard that tranquil boredom was outdoing war, or vigorous immune systems were outdoing pestilence. So why do I get the feeling I'm the only one breaking out the paper hats and balloons?

The International Association of Agricultural Economists, which has revealed that one billion of the world's six-and-a-half-billion population are too heavy and 800 million are malnourished, doesn't seem to be in a party mood. "Obesity and excess weight," says Professor Benjamin Senauer, "bring with them significant risks of chronic disease and premature death." But not as significant, I would guess, as starvation.

People talk a lot these days about the "obesity epidemic", as though you could catch obesity by sitting too close to a fat person. Perhaps that's why there's always an empty seat next to me on the tube. And while I would be the first to support better public transport and designing cities to make walking easier (two of the IAAE's proposals), I'm afraid that these measures are not going to make fat people thin.

Here is the truth about obesity. Absolutely everyone (bar a few McDonald's-addled mothers whom Jamie Oliver keeps on standby for the angry "We don't want no fruit 'n' veg" shots) knows how to lose excess weight. Eat less, exercise more. The physics of it, except for those afflicted with endocrine disorders, is simple.

The question, then, is: if it's so simple, why is anyone overweight? This is where it gets complex. Some people are overweight because they like it. Hard as this may be to grasp (although not as hard as it is for me to grasp that some people go potholing for pleasure), some people believe that they are in charge of their own bodies, are allowed to be the weight that pleases them, and find a larger body pleasing.

Some people are overweight because they simply lost track of their eating habits for a while - during a busy time at work, perhaps, or after a move. These are not, in general, people who need, or want, help from their governments. With time, they will adjust their lives to suit them better.

Finally, many people are overweight as a reaction to emotional problems. This is an answer you may not like if, being British, you believe that all emotional problems can be dealt with by drinking a nice cup of tea and listening to the shipping forecast. Eating, like many other perfectly normal behaviours (drinking alcohol, spending money and having sex with strangers), can be overused as a response to difficult emotions. These are not simple matters to unpick and I am afraid that no government has the right to tell its citizens when, or if, they should delve into their childhood traumas, particularly if these citizens are posing no threat to anyone else.

I believe it is this group that is growing. People are getting fatter because food is now readily available; it's easy to eat emotionally because food is everywhere. And if the government really wants to sort this out, it would be better off investing its money in extra therapy for the nation than in subsidising fruit.

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