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Tristan Cleveland: Stop blaming obese people for obesity, when Halifax planning is more to blame

We must get at the root causes of obesity like lack of healthy food or active transportation options around HRM, not shame individuals.

Communities that support an active lifestyle and provide access to fresh produce are critical for preventing obesity, Tristan Cleveland argues.


Communities that support an active lifestyle and provide access to fresh produce are critical for preventing obesity, Tristan Cleveland argues.

Of all the widely-held beliefs in our society, among the most absurd is that obesity is caused by a lack of willpower. Blaming individuals is an injustice that distracts us from fixing the root problems.

About a quarter of Nova Scotians are obese. Just thirty years ago, the number (for all of Canada) was closer to one in fifteen. In historic photos, it’s hard to find an obese person.

It would be quite the coincidence if hundreds of thousands of individuals became gluttonous at the exact same time.

“We haven’t had a sudden overwhelming failure of willpower,” Dr. Sara Kirk tells me, a Dalhousie health promotion expert speaking on the panel, Gluttony: food for Thought, next week in Halifax. “We have created an environment that undermines everything that’s good for us.”

Food with almost no nutritional content is cheap, ubiquitous, and engineered to be as enticing as possible. While billions are spent on marketing junk food, little is spent to convince us to eat broccoli.

In Halifax, fresh produce is unavailable throughout swathes of the North End, Spryfield, Preston, and elsewhere. Staying active by walking or biking to do anything useful, like going to work, is hard anywhere outside the core, and near impossible in places like Kingswood.  

The list of causes is much longer, but altogether, it is becoming increasingly hard to avoid gaining weight in cities like Halifax, and the health consequences cost the Canadian economy an estimated $23 billion a year.

We can only tackle the causes of obesity if we don’t dismiss it as a moral failing. And yet, there is a nagging thought. Can’t people just eat less with a bit of willpower?

Sure, but just how much willpower? When fat cells start to lose fat, they perversely signal the body to get hungry and expend less energy. Losing weight is like trying to starve an army, with each soldier fighting back, demanding to be fed. One study of 77,000 men puts the chances of returning to healthy body weight—and keeping it—at 1 in 210. For severe obesity, it’s 1 in 1,290.

In the blog, Diabetes.....Terminal and Scared, a man named Kevin describes his last year as he died of diabetes as a warning to others. One of the tragedies in this powerful blog is that he blames himself completely for eating too much, leading to mental suffering that rivals his physical pain.  

Here’s how he describes trying to “just” eat less: “You hold on to that resolution, you try so hard, you cry yourself to sleep night after night because you’re so hungry.”

The hardest thing I have ever done was run up McKenzie Mountain in Cape Breton. That took willpower, and yet it was not as painful as what Kevin describes, and I only had to do it once — not every single day.

There are few athletes we expect to have that kind of willpower daily, yet people judge every single obese person for not having it. Considering the diet industry is worth $50 billion in North America, the problem can hardly be a lack of motivation, yet even doctors treat the issue as a matter of willpower.

“When you look at the evidence, the most effective treatment for obesity is surgery,” Dr. Kirk tells me, in which the size of a person’s stomach is reduced. “Yet there’s a ten year waiting list in Nova Scotia. What does that tell us, when we have an evidence-based treatment that we’re not even offering?”

Mayor Mike Savage deserves props for pushing Halifax to better support active transportation and healthy food with projects like the Halifax Food Charter, Mobile Food Market, and more. To keep making progress, we need to focus on actual solutions like these, and stop blaming hundreds of thousands of individuals.

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