Hardly a day goes by without some newspaper article giving tips about how to lose weight by eating less and exercising more.
But the message doesn’t seem to be having much effect according to a new report by the National Obesity Forum (NOF).
It was estimated in 2007 that half the British population would be obese by 2050.
Now the NOF has said this may be a dramatic “underestimate of the true scale of the problem”.
A government-sponsored campaign, Change4Life, is supposed to be tackling the problem.
But the new report says a much more “hard-hitting approach” is needed, akin to that used against smoking.
So how worried should we be? And why do existing campaigns seem so ineffective?
There are good reasons to be alarmed at the current trend. Becoming obese significantly increases the risk of becoming afflicted by diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer.
Why should carrying around more fat pose such a health risk? One reason is that fat cells also secrete hormones.
Some of these send signals to the parts of the brain that control appetite.
Others regulate the metabolism of organs such as the heart and liver.
When people become obese, fat cells stop functioning normally and their hormonal output becomes abnormal.
This can cause excess fat to build up in heart and blood vessels, increasing the risk of stroke and heart disease.
The ability of insulin to control blood sugar is impaired, leading to diabetes. And the hormonal imbalance leads to greater susceptibility to certain cancers.
Unfortunately losing weight is far from straightforward.
The hormonal changes that occur in obese people do not simply reverse when they lose weight.
Instead chemical signals indicating to the brain that the person should be eating more to regain their former weight persist.
But the difficulties faced by those losing weight are only partially due to biology.
The pressures of capitalist society are just as important. And those pressures are also central to the alarming rise in obesity.
The cheap processed foods that now line so many supermarket aisles make huge profits for the giant food companies.
And ironically the same firms market many “diet” products that have no nutritional or scientific basis.
Some say it is the responsibility of the individual to eat healthily. But healthy foodstuffs are increasingly out of the price range of many people as wages and benefits are slashed.
And finding the time to cook from scratch is increasingly difficult for workers forced to put in more hours for less pay.
A recent report showed how increasing numbers of low-income families hit by savage cuts in benefits can’t even afford to pay for the fuel to cook.
Importantly, “comfort eating” can also fulfil a psychological role, as the pressures in society mount.
Campaigns such as Change4Life point the finger at individuals rather than tackling the social causes of obesity. They may make it even harder for people by making them feel guilty about their weight.
And such guilt is reinforced by “perfect body” images in adverts and the media.
The fight for cheap, healthy food should be an integral part of the struggle for socialism.
But it will require taking on the food companies—and challenging a system that sacrifices the long-term health of society for profit.