Body image clouds fat debate

MICHELLE BRIDGES
Last updated 14:55 08/11/2011

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OPINION: Something big happened the other week. Something really big. Denmark introduced what has been dubbed the world's first "fat tax".

No, it's not a tax on fat people - quite the opposite, in fact. It's a tax on foods that contain more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat. The result is that a packet of chips will go up by the equivalent of about 12 cents, and a hamburger by about 40 cents.

But here's the bit that I find really fascinating: the tax hasn't been introduced to cut obesity rates, but rather to improve life expectancy. (Denmark's obesity rate - defined as the percentage of the population with a body mass index over 30 - is relatively low at 13.4 per cent of the population. By comparison, 26.5 per cent of New Zealanders are obese.)

The Danish government has recognised the relationship between poor food choices and the health of its citizens. Naturally, there's a chorus of whingers, mostly comprised of the manufacturers that make the fatty food, complaining that it's not fair, will cost jobs, blah blah blah.

But what's got me all fizzy is that for the first time in the healthy-food debate, a government has had the guts to put its people first by legislating against those companies whose manufactured, processed foods make people sick.

They don't mess around, those Danes. They effectively banned trans fats some years ago. Trans fats are the hydrogenated fats that can leave us with heart disease by messing up our good and bad cholesterol levels.

But what I really like about this "fat tax" is how it shifts the debate from people being overweight to people living longer. It's not about plus-size models, body image or eating disorders. It's about quality and quantity of life, and how a government is prepared to pass laws to protect it.

Here, on the other hand, we've been so busy being PC about, well, fat that we seem to have forgotten the most important element - our health. It's time for our health to take centre stage in this debate. If we draw a comparison between the war on tobacco and the war on obesity, the glaring similarity is that health is the principal motivator. The more we get bogged down in discussion about the social acceptance of obesity, the more difficult it is to make change - profound change - to our health and quality of life.

Michelle's tip

Tap into your inner activist. Email food manufacturers about unhealthy products and ask what they are doing to improve them. Don't buy foods that you know are bad for you, and nag your local MP about unhealthy food issues. The fat issue is a complex one, with foods high in saturated fat often being rich in other nutrients. Cheese, nuts, dark chocolate and fish oils all fall into this category, so if you are concerned about your daily fat intake, it's worth checking how much, and how often, you are eating healthy foods that may also have high fat content. Check food labels - and always avoid junk food, pastries, hot chips, crisps and the like.

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- Sydney Morning Herald

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