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The Weight of Responsibility

Annette and I were saddened recently to read a report on the BBC Website about two severely overweight teenagers from West Sussex in the south of England who were taken from their parents to be placed in long term foster care because the parents were considered to have failed in sufficiently understanding or managing the children's health and care needs. The family had been provided with Fitbits and paid gym membership by the local authority in order to encourage them to exercise more, and they had also signed up to Weight Watchers. None of these incentives were adhered to, hence the reason for the parents being deemed to have failed in their duty of care.

What shocked us reading this story was the fact that two children, described in the report as being "polite, bright and engaging", were effectively forcibly removed from their parents because the parents had failed to understand the seriousness of their children's conditions, the importance of diet, nutrition and exercise and how to correctly apply these disciplines to everyday living. Is this ultimately the fault of the parents, even though they have a responsibility as parents? Is it a crime if the parents simply lacked the knowledge and understanding to make meaningful changes? Is this lack of knowledge sufficient reason to break up a family? Pause for a moment and consider the trauma the children will undoubtedly experience by being removed from their parents. What about the parents for that matter? There's no mention of an unhappy home or a lack of love, in fact the opposite is implied. Was there not some other option available that didn't involve ripping the family apart?

As a child and young adult, and in fact all through my life, I was overweight, and this was a concern for my parents. They encouraged me to try to lose weight, but they had no real idea of how I might do so other than to restrict the amount of calories I consumed. This rarely worked for more than a week or two, because I became bored and miserable and was unable to sustain such a regime. I now know better and have successfully achieved substantial weight loss and have maintained a healthy weight for several years, not because I diet, not because I count calories, and not because I restrict myself in any way. I simply discovered a completely new way of eating based on whole plant foods which effectively rebooted me. I was lucky, I have a loving partner, Annette, who helped me to learn this, and inspiring others to share in the pleasure we experience eating this way occupies us every day and is both our mission and the cornerstone of our business. Looking back, there is absolutely no degree of blame I would assign to my parents for my weight gain as a child. They, as much as I, were victims of an increasingly toxic food environment that is dominated by large industrial-scale processed food producers that know exactly how to hook us through their slick advertising and the laboratory-made products with their addictive tastes and textures

Unfortunately, all the details of the West Sussex case are not provided and we can only speculate about the full circumstances. But it serves as both a powerful reminder and indictment of the failings of our modern society and particularly those that govern to sufficiently encourage healthy eating from childhood through to old age. The obesity epidemic isn't a new phenomenon, it's been the subject of much debate and has occupied an enormous amount of newsprint and media discussion for decades now; countless solutions have been proposed and implemented, yet they have consistently failed to properly address or resolve the problem, and still the epidemic worsens year by year. Successive governments continue to offer soundbites and pledges that they will tackle the problem head-on, but the measures end up being nothing more than a compromise that are unable to slow this speeding train. They fail to hold the food industry sufficiently to account, they offer too much room for manoeuvre, there's an ingrained sense that it's down to individual responsibility. But how can the public make the right choices without first possessing the information to do so? Nutrition is rarely taught in the school curriculum, and it's still even only a minute part of the curriculum for those studying at medical school. There is so much conflicting information about what constitutes a healthy diet that it causes confusion. Are carbs bad, is fat good, what about protein?...and so it goes on.

So what is the solution? Well, one thing is certain. It's incredibly complex and we don't have all the answers. What is beyond doubt is that we need a complete overhaul of the way we are educated about food, in our schools, in the workplace, and as part of lifelong learning; we need to reconfigure the whole infrastructure of the food environment that we inhabit and eradicate the so-called food deserts and make nutritious and affordable foods available to all; there needs to be a much stricter control over fast food outlets being allowed to operate close to our schools; we need to incorporate healthy food and healthy eating habits in our institutions and public places, including schools and hospitals; we need trusted role models to provide encouragement; we need our medical profession to engage with patients in a supportive and encouraging way and explain how they might resolve their issue; we need the food industry to be more responsible and to provide clear nutritional information and to be made to reduce the fat, sugar and salt from the processed foods that are so addictive and only end up reinforcing our cravings for the damaging foods; and finally, we need to rediscover and learn to love natural wholefoods, ideally plant-based, which contain fibre which is so lacking in so many people's diets, not to mention a host of other nutrients that support our health but without the empty calories that are so damaging. What we shouldn't do is blame parents and individuals for failing to provide guidance when they themselves are victims of this complex maze. It's not simply about calories in and calories out, and lack of exercise or more exercise. There are so many more factors at play, some of which we are only just beginning to understand, for instance the evolutionary processes and habits that are designed to protect us in lean times and help us to store fat and that lead us to be caught in the 'pleasure trap', whereby we favour those foods that provide the instant dopamine rush; the make-up and diversity of our gut microbiota that have been shown to play a part in influencing and driving our eating habits; the environmental toxins and man-made food substances that come with modern living that disrupt our hormones and normal body processes and effectively trick our brains. There are more…Confronted with such a maze, the weight of responsibility lies with society as a whole and not with the individual alone. It is a collective responsibility to demand more from the government and from food producers and we can exercise this responsibility by how we vote and how and where we shop. In this way, we can help to shape our future and the future of our planet and live more like we were meant to live, in harmony with our natural environment.

Let us finish with an illuminating study in the New York Times (based on this article for anyone who likes to have all the details) that we recently came across which highlights how processed foods and the excess calories that are part of a typical modern diet have contributed to the obesity epidemic. It's based on a study of children in Ecuador who belong to a rural Amazon tribe and a more urban-based group of children living nearby. Unsurprisingly, the rural children eat a more traditional diet typical of their hunting and gathering lifestyle, whereas the urban group consume more meat, dairy, starchy foods like white rice and processed foods.

Interestingly and surprisingly, although the rural children lead a much more active life, with more movement and less time spent sitting, both groups were found to burn the same amount of calories a day. This confounds what most of us would have imagined and is itself fascinating and surely worthy of further attention. The decisive factor then, between the two groups, was shown to be the type of food and the respective calories it contained that caused the difference in body composition. So, everything points once again to rediscovering our natural way of eating as being the key driver in returning our body to its optimal state. This is why we are so strongly in favour of a wholefood plant-based approach as we believe this is the healthiest diet for our species, and we will continue to promote this way of eating in the hope that it will inspire others to do the same and to reap the benefits.

Graham Henry

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