Trafalgar Square Cyclist

Boris Johnson Gets Religion on Obesity

A near death experience with COVID-19 has made Boris Johnson a sudden believer in policies to address obesity. “It’s all right for you thinnies,” says Johnson in discussing the matter. Apparently, he attributes the seriousness of his encounter with the coronavirus to his own obesity. (His BMI was approximately 36 at the time.) So now, he’s not so allergic to what he once derided as “nanny state” policies.

In fact, he has told some of his senior ministers, “I’ve changed my mind on this. We need to be much more interventionist” on obesity.

A Golden Age for Cycling?

It’s not clear that Johnson is ready to reverse himself on opposing the UK sugar tax. But he is very gung ho on cycling. His official spokesman told the press:

As we outlined in our recovery strategy, this government will invest in preventive and personalised solutions to ill health, helping people to live healthier and more active lives.

You have heard the PM speak on a number of occasions about the importance he attaches to cycling.

Thus, London Mayor Sadiq Khan was quick to announce “plans to make central London one of the largest car-free zones in any capital city in the world.”

Please, Not Another War on Fat

Unfortunately, the British tabloid press is trotting out tired old war metaphors. A battle of the bulge. A war on fat. We know too well how quickly that degenerates into a war on people living with obesity. And then we have two extremes.

At one extreme, fat-phobic crusaders think they have the answer – a simple answer for a complex problem. Along with that crusader mentality comes a big load of bias – both implicit and explicit – about obesity and toward the people affected. Obesity is a simple matter of lifestyle (they believe) and better individual choices will fix it.

Thirty years of this kind of talk has done nothing to slow the relentless rise of obesity rates in the U.S. It has, however, served to promote stigma.

At the other extreme, we have fat acceptance advocates, energized by the obvious harm that weight bias inflicts. But then they offer up an overreaction as the antidote: obesity is a bogus condition. It’s not such a problem for health, they say. When complications arise, just deal with it. Obesity care is pointless or worse, according to this line of thinking.

A Better Way Forward

There is a third way to address obesity. It requires curiosity about the true nature of obesity and new approaches for treating and preventing it. It also requires objectivity about what works and what doesn’t. Objectivity about facts, myths, and unproven suppositions. And above all, it requires respectful care for the the people whose lives are so profoundly affected by obesity. We need to get serious, not just zealous, about addressing obesity.

Click here and here for further perspective on the epiphany Boris Johnson has had about obesity.

Trafalgar Square Cyclist, photograph © Richard / flickr

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May 16, 2020