10 things you could do instead of a sugar tax

It’s sugar tax season again, when leftwing politicians hem and haw about increasing the costs of food they don’t like in order to coerce people to be healthier. Are you excited? I’m excited.

jafar-ecstatic

But I wonder if there’s maybe another way to do things. A way which isn’t punitive, judgemental, or unsubtly sending a message to fat people that their lives are worthless. Maybe it might look something like this.

10 things you could campaign on instead of a sugar tax

Raising wages. Guess what the major obstacle to eating a varied diet high in fruit, vegetables, and tasty protein is? Food costs money! People don’t have much money! Make sure they have more money! Rocket science.

Community gardens, school gardens, and fruit trees on berms. Just put the fresh food out there. Give kids and adults the tools and space to develop skills, provide for themselves, and develop a stronger relationship with where their food comes from.

Good school lunches. Give kids access to a wide range of fresh locally-made food and let them figure out what makes them feel good and full of energy. Bonus: local jobs and opportunities for young/unemployed people to learn skills and contribute to their communities.

Make school sports free. Like, really? I’m not even a parent and I’m hearing about schools charging up to hundreds of dollars, per kid, per team they’re on, per term.

Pools, playgrounds, skate parks, basketball courts. Outside of school, create safe local places for kids and adults to get out and be active.

Raising wages. You know what else makes people reach for convenient pre-packaged highly-processed “junk” foods? Working two or three jobs because they can’t afford to pay the rent, much less be at home every evening to cook a meal from scratch, or go out to the park to play frisbee.

Break up the supermarket duopoly. Two companies control most of our supermarkets, which pushes prices up. Encourage local farmers’ markets especially in urban centres, make it easier for small grocers to get started, crack down on price-fixing and supplier bullying.

Reverse the government’s $1.7 billion cuts to health and then some. Build a health system focused on prevention (of actual diseases, not existence-of-fat-people-itis)

Adopt a Health at Every Size approach. It may sound terrifying, but trufax – when you stop focusing entirely on people’s weight and promote actual physical and mental health, you get happier healthier people. End sizeist policies which exclude fat people from healthcare, and get medical staff looking beyond body size.

RAISING WAGES. Like, seriously. You know what causes a hell of a lot more damage to people’s health than having a fat ass? Stress. Not all the kale in the world is going to save your life if you’re barely sleeping from worry and overwork, never getting any natural light, or constantly fretting about unexpected costs or keeping up appearances despite being skint.

The ironic thing is, many of these policies are already in the political picture. But time and again we get distracted by the policy equivalent of the South Beach Diet- it’s quick! It’s easy! It might damage your health in the long term but you’ll do it anyway because there’s literally nothing worse than being fat!

Our distaste for the huge corporations who sell the packaged/processed/unrecognisable/cheap/nasty food we label as “junk” distracts us from the reality that they are only able to profit because far too many people do not have the luxury of picking and choosing a perfect organic macronutrient-balanced meal plan every week.

I get it. Those guys suck. But ultimately, a sugar tax does nothing but make the cheapest food available more expensive, in an environment where many people cannot make ends meet anyway. Those people won’t find magical quinoa salad under the mattress in the boot of their car if a bag of potato chips costs 50c more.

There are so many other things we can do – so many things that would improve people’s lives without marching into their homes and telling them what’s good for them. A more positive, supportive approach which says people have free will and good hearts, which trusts them to make the right choices for themselves and their whānau. Which is what we’re meant to be about, isn’t it?

Enjoy your salad, enjoy your burger

My very good friend Coley Tangerina has a splendid post up about bodies, food and fitness in the workplace:

We lean over our cubicles or bemoan across the kitchen how long it’s been since we went to the gym, or how badly we’ve been eating lately, or how we’re worried about gaining weight or how we shouldn’t have had that thing for lunch.

We start up conversations to feel camaraderie in our slog. The receptionist’s salad looks healthy. Your boss must have hollow legs. Thank goodness your analyst is eating for two. Gosh, your PR person must be hungry!

This talk is common place in offices and while it’s totally understandable, it’s bad for workplace welfare. Here’s why.

Go read the whole thing.

I had a great experience recently working with a new team. Maybe it was because we’d already been talking about wellness and empathy in a broad sense, maybe (probably) it was because I’d been That Person who deliberately set a boundary early in the process, saying “A lot of workplaces have a really damaging culture around food talk.” Either way, we found ourselves discussing food – but it wasn’t negative. It wasn’t judgemental, or normative. Someone had brought something delicious for lunch, which reminded someone of a thing they’d cooked for dinner the week before, and (because these things are inevitable) we somehow ended up discussing the great Vegemite/Marmite dichotomy.

Yet, in contrast to almost every other work-based conversation about food that I’ve ever been party too, it was just … fun. A nice positive chat before we got back down to business. Nobody walked away thinking their body or food choices had been judged and found wanting.

Imagine if that were the norm. It’d be pretty awesome.

The despair of “obesity battlers”

A few tweets I made this morning after seeing this lamentation on Radio NZ’s website:

This is an idea I’ve had rattling around in my head for a while – the constant messages and stigma focused on fat people (right from the get-go, depersonalizing us by talking about “obesity” as an amorphous, scary phenomenon) aren’t science any more. They’re religion.

Perhaps I’m too cynical, but making a headline by quitting and parrotting the usual demonizing lines – the Obesity Monster will destroy us all, the Obesity Monster is ruining our health system – and then mentioning “oh, by the way I have a book out soon” rings far too hollow to me.

For more information about Health at Every Size, I cannot recommend enough checking out Dr Linda Bacon’s website. Also:

I know this runs counter to so many ideas which are so deeply embedded in our society and media. We’re constantly reminded to associate physical size with health, and health with moral virtue. We’re meant to believe that weightloss is just this easy and that the only reason 95% of diets don’t work is because of personal failure and weakness.

But when we step away from the framing of “obesity” as a modern-day Nothing and remember we’re talking about people who happen to be fat, the whole facade starts to crumble. We can see that there’s a difference between having a certain body shape and having an actual defined health issue (like diabetes – which doesn’t only affect fat people – or high blood pressure – which doesn’t affect all fat people – or PCOS – which can cause weight gain but isn’t caused by being fat).

That’s crucial to being able to do something about those conditions instead of ignoring all the evidence that diets don’t work and fat stigma harms people far more than being fat does. That’s evidently something Dr Robyn Toomath wasn’t able to do. So, frankly, good riddance to her.

Today in dehumanizing fat people

Check out this glorious first sentence in an article about a health policy announcement:

The Government is preparing to make a major announcement in the fight against obesity, as it looks to reverse a trend of expanding waistlines and the burden of disease that goes with it.

Notice what’s missing?

People.

“Expanding waistlines!” it cries. “The burden of disease!” it shrieks. We’re “in a fight against obesity!” it declares. Fatness isn’t a simple physical descriptor in our society: it’s a monster, an autonomous phenomenon which will destroy us all as soon as it can get off the couch.

Whatever the Government’s announcement is, I’d like you to bear in mind a few simple facts:

  • Fat people are people
  • The fact some diseases are statistically linked to being fat does not mean that being fat causes disease
  • Being fat isn’t a disease either
  • Being thin isn’t proof of health
  • You can’t diagnose medical conditions just by looking at someone’s weight
  • There are plenty of diseases and conditions associated with height but no one declares a war on tallness
  • When you live in a society which treats your very bodily existence as proof of your immorality, stupidity and sickness, it’s not exactly a surprise you might get ill.

And if the Government’s announcement is any one of the usual grab-bag of food/exercise strategies:

  • Having access to a broad range of different foods, affordably and easily, is good no matter what your size is
  • Having opportunities to be physical active in a fun and non-coercive way is good no matter what your size is
  • People of any size may have nutritional needs or physical disabilities which you can’t see.

We’re a beautiful, incredibly diverse species, people. We don’t all fit into one box of dietary needs and physical capabilities.

If the Government is creating genuine opportunities for kids to eat a variety of foods – not a narrowly-defined “healthy diet” – or to get out and play – not conform to narrowly-defined notions of “fitness” – awesome.

If the Government is saying “wouldn’t it be nice if all the fat people went away” … not so much.

Fatties destroying the New Zealand Defence Force

Oh, sweet merciful mother of God:

The Defence Force has announced it will restrict sugary fizzy drinks and deep fried food as it emerges more than a quarter of its personnel are ‘obese’.

This story frustrates me so. I’ve criticised the use of BMI as a “health” metric for years, and the response is always the same: “Oh, but it’s a good measurement for populations as a whole.”

It simply makes no sense. If a metric doesn’t tell you anything useful about someone on an individual basis, what can it possibly tell you on a population-wide basis?

It might provide some information on how the population’s average-weight-divided-by-square-of-height is changing over time, but that’s equally meaningless in terms of “health”. Different ethnic groups have different body shapes (and different health issues). Older populations have different body sizes to younger populations (and different health issues). Why not measure those things when we’re talking about how healthcare costs are changing over time?

And what the apologists ignore is this: BMI is most frequently used against individuals. Immigration, access to certain types of healthcare, forcing fat people to buy two plane tickets: they target individuals for demeaning, inadequate, even harmful treatment, every time.

The supreme irony is that I’ve often challenged BMI-is-good-for-populations by saying “but how can it be a good measurement if you can’t even say for certain whether a high-BMI population is [a group of lazy fatties] or [a group of weightlifters]?”

And there is sneering and eye-rolling about how unlikely it is that NZ’s population-wide BMI is going up because more of us are weightlifting.

Well, here you go: a quarter of our military personnel are obese, compared to a third of the NZ population overall (according to the Ministry of Health, which also thinks BMI is good for anything). That’s a much smaller gap than you’d assume if you remember that the military is meant to be younger and fitter and the general population older and More Evil less fit.

(Of course, our military, especially our Army, is also a lot browner than the general population – remember what I said about different ethnic groups and different body shapes?)

We can either assume that our military training has really gone off the rails, or – hold onto your hats – that BMI, as an individual measurement, as a group measurement, is totally worthless for determining anything at all.

And next time you see an article screaming blue about how our “obesity rates” are “out of control”, don’t picture a gross, headless fat person holding a burger. Picture Richie McCaw, whose BMI, at 30, means he’s being counted as one of the terrible fat people destroying our health system.

~

PS: And of course, Stuff just couldn’t resist including a picture of Minister of Defence Gerry Brownlee, because get it, LOL, he’s fat.