Archive for October, 2012

So my last post – The Fat Tax and YOU!, was about a proposal by a group of doctors in Ontario to raise taxes on unhealthy food and lower taxes on healthy food. I went over in some detail why I think the proposal is not just a bad idea but also probably not particularly feasible (among the reasons being that as far as I know, food isn’t actually taxed on a federal level to begin with).

Obviously I could leave it at that and consider myself done, many is the time that people offer criticisms but not any ideas or alternatives. However as I stated in the last post this is an issue close to my heart (most specifically in the clogged arteries surrounding my heart). Plus my last post got some decent views (and I am nothing if not an attention whore). With that is mind I started piecing together this post with the hope of finding out what the barriers are to healthy eating. I really want to explore better alternatives to a Fat Tax as I think the tax is less about combating obesity and more about profiting from it.

One of the things they harped on about at my last job was that 90% of fixing a problem is determining what the problem is. They weren’t well known for practicing what they preached, as the preferred method of problem solving there was to ignore it and hope the problem went away. Regardless of their less than stellar implementation of the strategy it was still true, you can’t solve a problem unless you know what that problem is.

Obstacles to a Healthy Life Style

1) Cooking – I have met many people who just plain can’t cook. That becomes problematic considering the alternatives are usually fast food or processed stick-it-in-the-microwave type meals. Most of that stuff is terrible for you, heavily processed, heavily salted, light on nutrients and they treat vegetables with more disdain than I have for the humanity…and I have an official looking document from my career counsellor that says I REALLY hate humanity.

Anything that is actually healthy usually tastes like cardboard, or it is more expensive, or there is much less of it so it just isn’t really filling. So the question becomes; are we better off teaching people to cook their own healthy food OR demanding better alternatives in our processed or fast foods?

2) Time – People just don’t have time to cook a good meal anymore, I know it’s true because all the TV commercials tell me so. All the bagged, boxed and frozen dinner commercials have preyed on the “fact” that the working classes don’t have time to prepare a meal from scratch for so long that even if it wasn’t true people have long since bought in. Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that not having enough time to cook good meals IS an issue. That said, I think there is also the problem of people PERCEIVING they don’t have enough time to cook a good meal. You flip on the Food Channel and every dish is a culinary masterpiece, you go to Pinterest and every photo is of an edible work of art that someone slaved over  for hours. Well of course no one has time for that shit. What don’t you see in those cooking shows? The army of people doing the chopping and measuring for one…five hungry people waiting around the table impatiently for another. As for the people on Pinterest I haven’t completely ruled out the theory that they are all fucking nuts.

So now that people are already short on time due to long hours and all the extra curricular activities they may have to  get their kids to, they are also feeling guilt over the fact that whatever they prepare won’t be “good” enough because it didn’t take half an hour to prepare and require pulling out the lemon zester. I know many people who judge serving processed prepared foods as “bad parenting”. Is it any wonder people are frustrated? All they want to do is feed their kids or themselves but unless they do it right then someone somewhere will be judging them…even if it is the nagging little asshole in the back of their head that commercials and food magazines built.

3) Bad Habits – This is a huge one for most obese people. You start learning bad habits and they can become damn near impossible to break. As a single guy on my own, one of the habits I have is to not bother making dinner and just eating a bag of chips instead…I really wish I was kidding. What starts off as lazy can quickly become habit and the only solution for breaking a habit is completely retraining yourself. That is a hell of a lot of time and effort.

To be honest it would be easier to give all of us currently obese people up as a lost cause. How much harder is it for an obese person to lose weight and get healthy than an already healthy person to stay that way? We are talking about the difference between trying to push a rock up a hill compared to down a slope. Not that I want to be given up on but the better use of government time and money is to guide the next generation down a healthier path than trying to fix the problem after it is already broken. Most industries would refer to it as preventitive maintenance (unlike percussive maintenance, which is just beating the shit out of things until they work).

4) Confusion – Science is finding new information about foods and health all the time. Some foods have gone from good to bad and back again. Sugar substitutes like Aspartame and Splenda were supposed to be a great alternative but now you get articles about all the horrible side effects they are supposed to bring with them. Suddenly you are weighing diabetes versus alzheimer’s and trying to separate credible sources from conspiracy blogs. Add to that the “scientists” that are hired by various special interest groups that will render any finding you like for some hookers and blow. So now I am standing in an aisle trying to remember if it was butter or margarine that was supposed to be better for you (I am pretty sure it is neither but I also stopped caring). Our only option is to keep abreast of all the new findings, follow the blogs, read the ingredients on all the products…fuck it, I don’t even feel like finishing the sentence let alone putting the work in.

I suppose I could just let one of my  health nut friends do all the work and then just follow their advice. Problem being that most health nuts are…well…nuts. Talking to a health nut feels like talking to a conspiracy theorist about JFK and 9/11. They start mixing morality advice in with their health advice, and the health advice isn’t regular health advice, it is tofu/wheatgrass advice. If they have the time and interest to scour the internet for health news they aren’t going to flub it at the last minute and tell you which brand of aerosol cheese is the least lethal. Unfortunately, that will be what I ask about because that is what I want to know.

5) Snow – This is may not be an issue where you live but I live in Edmonton, Alberta. Snow can start as early as October and stays till it is damn good and ready to leave…April if you are lucky. Some of that time won’t be terrible but there are stretches around January where they start warning you not to go outside with any exposed flesh for fear of frost bite. This means all the fun summer activities I could be persuaded to get off my ass and do are packed up and waiting for 6 to 8 months. I have a hard enough time finding things I can do in bright sunshine and green grass, among my bad habits was a lack of interest in sports and the like. Now I need to find a completely different set of activities that I can do:

– in at least a foot of snow
– in the dark (I have had some jobs where I haven’t seen the sun all winter)
– in the city (I can’t head to a ski hill every day)
– doesn’t actually involve skiing or skating (because I fucking hate both of them)

All of which won’t matter for at least two months when the only reason anyone goes outside is to start the car and let it warm up enough to be drive-able.

6) Support – Not many people have any idea how to support obese people trying to lose weight. Considering most obese people don’t know what they need or want for support that isn’t surprising. I had a personal trainer who constantly wanted to weigh me so he could cheer on my weight loss but despite the fact I was looking and feeling better in some cases I was actually gaining weight. Nothing makes you feel better than finding out all your hard work has gained you two pounds. I never wanted nor cared about weigh-ins but this guy made it seem like it was essential for my weight loss. It wasn’t long after that I started to notice that the support from gym staff seemed as fake and plastic as their smiles. As soon as I didn’t progress to the ball crushingly expensive next level of personal training I was left to my own devices and barely acknowledged, but maybe that was just my shitty choice of gym. By the way, gym patrons themselves are actually pretty supportive of the obese folks looking to lose weight. All but the most dickish were just glad to see you out there trying, which did not fit the perception I had built up of them before I went.

Compare that to the internet, if you follow an obesity article online there will always be the few commenters suggesting that shaming fat people will bring them into line. Like somehow fat people aren’t already a bundle of shame and only this idiots razor sharp input will put them to right. I have had people talk about obesity on Facebook like their years of healthy eating, clean living and superior genetics has given them a keen insight into battling obesity…skinny people talking to me about “solving” obesity always sounds like fundamentalist talking about how gay marriage will effect their lives, they talk with that same fervour that suggests that I am clearly too fat to know what I am talking about or what is best for me. I don’t know much but I do know it is best to leave those people behind, if you aren’t here to help I am sure as hell not going to let you stick around to hinder me.

Rancid Monke

I have been overweight all my life, so no story hits closer to home for me then when someone starts talking about the “obesity epidemic”. It hits even closer to home when the story is a group of skinny apathetic people trying to “solve” the “problem” of obesity, like I am an errant X in an algebra equation that they are hoping will sort itself out if they calculate hard enough. So a group of doctors in Ontario have come up with a list of recommendations for battling obesity. Not suprisingly they are taking the exact same stance on fatty foods as they do on cigarettes, why screw with a winning formula I guess. The current list of suggesstions includes:

– Restricting marketing of fatty and sugary foods to children.

I would also like to restrict marketing of mass market, over-priced toys to children. oh, and insultingly stupid children’s movies. It would be nice if they didn’t watch all those pointless and violent cartoons either. So I guess it’s watching C-Span and eating rice cakes from now on kiddies. I mean, this isn’t necessarily a bad idea but it’s not like you are going to get Bran Flakes to start sponsoring kids shows either, so there needs to be something to replace it with.

– Placing graphic warning labels on pop and other high-calorie foods with little to no nutritional value.

I don’t remember a single smoker going “Boy, that label is just damn gross, I am done with these things.” Actually, the labels would probably be counter productive once kids figure it out. The package with the diabetes amputation warning is the tasty stuff kids! This is actually pretty insulting to be honest, like there is someone who mistakes sugar frosted corn-syrup flakes for a healthy breakfast and it is only the keen insight of an Ontario doctor who can set that person straight. Assuming your audience is too thick to figure it out on their own without a medical professional taking them by the hand is the sort of contempt that makes average people’s teeth grind.

– Adding retail displays for high-sugar, high-fat foods that prominently advise consumers of the health risks.

I ignore the retail displays now, adding a big sign with nutritional facts and warnings is LESS likely to make me stop and care. I am there to shop, not read about all my bad life choices in order of nutritional value.

– Restricting the availability of sugary, low-nutritional value foods in sports and other recreational facilities frequented by young people.

Get rid of Coke machines, because recreation centres exist in the land of make-believe where convenience stores aren’t 2 blocks away at most. Regardless, most of those places are getting some sort of rent or a cut from the vending company. That is money that suddenly has to be made up somehow. I am not saying it is a bad idea necessarily but if one rink or basketball court has to close over not enough funds than it will actually cause considerable more harm than any good it did.

Then comes the big one and my personal favourite.

– Increasing taxes on junk food and decreasing taxes on healthy foods.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the FAT TAX. It won’t matter what the government calls it (food rebate adjustment?), that is what it is and that is what everyone will call it.

So besides it being an inelegant solution born of a lack of empathy and understanding of the causes of obesity, besides it sending a strong message of judgement to those who aren’t at the government approved average body weight, beside it being the exact opposite of everything I know about the psychology of the obese and those hoping to lose weight (by being a punishment against the obese instead of an incentive and reward for losing weight) let’s look at why this idea is just plain old going to fail.

– To me, taxes are a purely political maneuver and this will be seen as such. The story won’t be about the healthy benefits of the program, the focus will be raising taxes on an already highly taxed nation. Motives will be questioned to the Nth degree and any politician who tables it had better be squeaky clean and probably vegan or he will be viewed as a hypocrite. If he is a vegan he will be viewed as biased and out of touch with common citizens. Talk about a no win scenario. This isn’t about luxury items, this is about essentials and it will be taken as a political scheme no matter how honourable the intentions.

– There is no tax on food in this country (at least none that I know of), they are talking about raising and lowering a tax that doesn’t exist. I thought food might be subject to the GST (goods and services tax) but it turns out that the government that implemented the tax was so afraid of the backlash of taxing food that they raised the actual tax rate but exempted food. The only exemption to the GST food exemption (I shit you not, this is an actual thing) is for savoury snacks (chips and chip like snacks), salted nuts, granola products and snack mixture. So essentially there is already a fat tax on the worst offenders of the food world and it has done sweet fuck all to curb obesity. So other than those listed in order to have a lower tax on good food and a higher tax on bad food you would have to CREATE a tax which would mean the price of everything would go up. Instead of a punishment/reward system, everybody gets punished and it is a matter of degrees. Good luck getting elected officials to support that or average consumers not to openly rebel. That is a burden the lower class can’t afford.

– You could create a tax on just bad food but it wouldn’t correspond to any decrease on the other end, thus it would just be a money grab, none of the money raised by the tax would be used for the intended purpose of lowering the cost of good food. If you attempted to get companies to lower prices by handing them the fat tax money that would be government trying to directly control the market which would be massively frowned upon. Setting prices is not really the job of the government in a capitalist society and no one wants to see their tax dollars wasted on private corporations.

– You could remove GST exemption for food I suppose, I mean, they already have their exemption to the exemption. Then you have all the bad parts of creating a food tax PLUS the money raised would just be part of the standard budget instead of being earmarked for anything like obesity studies or cancer research. That would be officially giving up all pretence of it being a positive attempt at curbing obesity and would just become discriminating against fat people for the sake of extra tax dollars. That is on top of the fact that taxing chips doesn’t seem to be stopping people from buying them (I honestly didn’t know I was being taxed for them until I researched this blog post so it wasn’t slowing me down in the slightest).

– Actually, it wouldn’t even really punish just the obese. Who the hell hasn’t had a shitty meal from time to time? Who hasn’t popped a frozen pizza in the oven between work and soccer practice for the kids. Why can’t a perfectly healthy person chow down on a bag of chips from time to time. He isn’t about to become a burden to the healthcare system, so why must he face punishment? It is easy to tax cigarettes or booze, not only are they not essential but it won’t effect millions of people several times a day. Try telling the entire population that their food court lunch just increased a buck or two and watch your party get shit-canned in the next election.

– This all begs the question of who gets to decide what is considered bad and good food. Do we let a vegan decide and eat tofu for the rest of our lives? Do we let government decide? I don’t trust politicians to sit the right way on a toilet seat. Do we leave it to doctors? What about that 1 out of 5 doctors that doesn’t recommend my brand of flu medication? Does he get a vote or not? Again, cigarettes and booze are easy to tax, it either is a cigarette or it isn’t, there isn’t a grey area. Considering the way science flip-flops on food health every day there is no straight answer on what should or shouldn’t be taxed. Sure, potato chips seem obvious but it become REALLY subjective, REALLY fast. Is butter good or bad? Is it better than margarine? What kind of cheese is considered the healthiest? Should I show up to the grocery store with a graphing calculator and some loose leaf?

– In the end I think the biggest problem is that the obese aren’t a “problem” to be “solved” (despite what this group of doctors seems to believe), it is a group of people who need help. Having lived with it all my life, I know that if I ever do get to a healthy weight it will be because of my hard work and the help of supportive people cheering me on, not because the government made Cheese Poofs and Coke a dollar more expensive. Maybe it is time for these doctors to bring on a psychiatrist as well, maybe even actually talk to a fat guy not just talk down to one. I am always available for consult.

Rancid Monke