Saturday, July 31, 2010


Many reasons are cited to explain away the modern trend of over eating and the resultant effect on the human body as manifested by obesity and many life style health disorders like CVD, Blood Pressure, Diabetes etc. But what causes over eating? There does not appear to be any consensus on this aspect amongst scientists and sociologists dealing with this phenomenon. Food industry invariably takes the blame for manufacturing foods with high calories, fat, sugar and salt which are liked by the consumers, most of them not well informed about health implications of a diet not balanced with respect to the nutrients required for sound health. In the modern society, pursuit of money is an overwhelming avocation and any business established with resources will naturally expect decent returns for the investment deployed. Naturally food industry business also expects attractive returns which depends on the acceptability of the products made by it to the consumers. The driving force for business is the consumer demand and the dictum "consumer is the king" guides the type of products manufactured by the industry. If the food industry has been following the consumer trend and develop foods to meet that demand, probably it cannot be faulted entirely for the present alarming situation.

There are plenty of suggestions from time to time to arrest the present trend, none of which is likely to achieve the desired result. Taking a leaf out of tobacco industry some want to impose high taxes on foods which are not considered healthy but this strategy has not stopped smoking completely though the population of smokers has come down significantly during the last two decades. Same is true regarding the efforts to discourage alcoholism through making drinking illegal many years ago which resulted in driving the industry "underground" and the product becoming more expensive. If some of the opiates command astronomical prices in the underground market, it is because of the ban on use of drugs in many countries but this has not stopped the spread of drug addiction. If past experience is any guide, taxation may not make much of an impact on the desire of consumers to eat tasty foods irrespective of the damage that can occur. In spite of these constraints, industry is taking cautious steps to change the consumer perception of food through "engineering" new products with better health credentials. Modification of recipes by reducing salt, lowering sugar, increasing fiber, progressive bringing down of fat, including useful nutrients like omega-3 fats, antioxidants, phytochemical ingredients etc all point to the new direction the industry is taking to give alternate and healthier options to the consumer in the market place.

Ultimately it is the human mind that needs to be "trained" to avoid unhealthy foods, which in turn can bring out dramatic changes in the attitudes of food processing fraternity and the restaurant sector. Psychologists feel that change in human behavior can be achieved only slowly and right environment needs to be created for bringing about such a change. Some of the on-going efforts include more revealing label declarations, continuous consumer education programs, mandatory exclusion of ingredients of doubtful safety, making consumers aware of the health implications of restaurant foods, etc. Probably a jarring note on this issue is orchestrated by a section of the food industry which holds the consumer responsible for to day's food-linked health crisis because of lack of minimum physical activity resulting in accumulation of unspent calories in the form of fat in the body. While this may be true, it is an undeniable fact that human activity cannot be regimented, especially in a democratic society.

The unconscious response of human mind to environment is borne out by a recent study where it was found that women who lived near a supermarket tended to have a lower body mass index (BMI), meaning that they were less likely to be obese, than those closer to a convenient store. Convenience stores generally do not carry healthy foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables or whole-grain products. Similarly those residing in areas where restaurants are nearby were more prone to have widening waist lines and closer the restaurants higher were the BMI readings of the residents. These findings are important because of their significance in planning human habitats. Modern dwelling complexes in many parts of the world are designed to deliver more convenience and less physical discomfort to the residents which may not be desirable considering the long term implications of such mindless planning. Though the independent spirit of human beings must be admired, in to day's world some discipline, especially in eating practices, needs to be inculcated. Urban planning to subtly train the people to avoid sedentary life style through better planning, along with early stage training at childhood can be expected to progressively improve the situation over a period of time.


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