They say it’s not a good idea to talk about religion or politics at dinner parties.
But I think it’s time to break that rule, at least when it comes to politics, and not just at dinner parties but any time. Perhaps around the dinner table is actually the ideal time to talk about the politics of food; specifically, the fact that in New Zealand we have a major problem which will affect all of us, one way or another, in the future. We are getting fatter and sicker, and we don’t seem to have a plan to deal with it.
We need to talk about this. We need to decide – individually and collectively – what kind of society we want to live in in the future. Do we want to live in ‘obesogenic’ environments where the easiest, quickest and cheapest food choices are the least healthy ones? Do we want our kids to be exposed to pervasive marketing messages for unhealthy foods, everywhere from television to the classroom? Do we want to live in a New Zealand where only a small minority are a healthy weight, and where the health system is overwhelmed with the cost of treatment for type 2 diabetes and obesity-related cancers?
I think most of us would answer ‘no’. I don’t like to be gloomy (and in Healthy Food Guide we make a point of emphasising the positive when it comes to healthy eating). But if we don’t think hard about these issues – and use our power as consumers and as voters to make change – this is where we are heading in the very near future.
There is a strong argument to be made that regulation can help create an environment where individuals can make better choices. It’s being made by health professionals, researchers and educators across the board. Last month, the New Zealand Medical Association released a comprehensive document detailing policy initiatives it says can help tackle the obesity crisis. Included in these are a tax on sugary drinks; nutrition education in schools; greater protection for children from marketing of unhealthy food and more funding for community-based programmes. Similar approaches are recommended in a report released on Friday from an expert panel at Auckland University.
The number one recommendation in the most recent report is for the implementation of a comprehensive national action plan for obesity and non-communicable disease prevention. Global health expert Professor Boyd Swinburn says New Zealand has an excellent opportunity to take this issue seriously and invest in highly cost-effective policies and programmes to become a leader in the field.
There are examples to follow. Ireland recently introduced a raft of policies, including many of the measures recommended by the experts here in NZ. They’re taking the obesity issue seriously and seem committed to changing the country’s dismal health statistics, which are very similar to ours.
I know that some of you are of the view that we are each individually responsible for our own health, and it’s not the Government or anyone else’s job to tell us how to eat or how to feed our kids. Ultimately, that is true. We are responsible for what we choose to eat. But the choices we make are only as good as the choices we have available to us. We have to admit that the ‘hands off’ approach the Government has now to obesity – leaving it very much up to individual responsibility – is not working. The problem is getting worse.
No one entity is responsible for solving our obesity crisis. And, of course, no one entity is capable of solving it. It is going to take a combined effort on the part of all of us: individuals, parents, educators, health professionals, community groups, the food industry as well as the Government. We need a ‘whole-of-government’ and a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to solve this problem. Grassroots community programmes are fantastic – but policies aimed at creating a healthier environment can really help support those communities and individuals who are trying to make better choices and changes for the better.
We have an opportunity with the upcoming election to question our politicians, to ask them, seriously, how they plan to address this issue. Take a look at the election guide in our August issue, where we asked the political parties about their specific policies on nutrition and obesity. If you get the chance to talk to your candidates, let them know that this is important to you. Tell them how much you care about your health and the health of the next generation of Kiwi kids. Tell them we’re at a turning point now where if we act, we can turn the tide of obesity and disease. And tell them we don’t want to be the generation who did nothing as that tide raced on past.