The 250 million obese people in 1980 have now ballooned to 1 billion obese people. By any measure, that is an extraordinary judgement on the world we live in. We have seldom had so many people starving to death wondering if they'll ever get another meal and yet we've never had so many people literally gorging themselves to death. That is quite an indictment on our race. Humanity remains as elusive as ever.
We can derive several conclusions from these revelations. One concerns the evolutionary propensity of a human being. Humans seldom stop eating at the point when they have had enough. That is because these feelings are controlled by hormones over which we have precious little control. Ghrelin instructs us to carry on eating thus overruling the satiety centres in the brain. Leptin has the opposite effect but is over-ruled by the greedy ghrelin.
I had a friend whose dog perfectly illustrated this. The dog once ate an entire bag of dog food on the simple premise that is was there. He was very ill afterwards but went on to repeat this feat several times. No matter how ill he made himself feel, his instinct was to eat whatever was on offer until nothing was available. In many ways, that dog was not dissimilar to most humans.
Most of us eat more from habit than from a need to achieve satiety. Thus, millions of us are eating far more than we need all of the time. These are inescapable facts. Rarely, stories are encountered of humans on the other extreme of this picture. One such story came to my attention this morning. Just after the latest obesity figures had been announced, I heard the story of an Australian couple in their 60s who had just run one marathon every day for the past 366 days. They did so to promote a positive message about being responsible for your own health. Well, they've certainly done that because underpinning this extraordinary feat was a diet which would make most of us run a mile (if you'll pardon the irony).
Janette Murray-Wakelin and her partner are both vegans who only eat uncooked fruit and vegetables. By eating no meat, fish or dairy produce, they have put themselves in to an ever dwindling minority. Their endurance in completing their 366 marathons (not the erstwhile chocolate bars I hasten to add), was supported by a daily regime of fruit and vegetable smoothies and fruit salads. I can only say that the prospect of completing one marathon leaves me feeling weak so I am in awe of them both.
Their regime is not exactly new though. Max Gerson was a German born physician who died in 1959. He had pioneered the Gerson Therapy which still ranks as one of the most reviled regimes outside of mainstream medicine. His regime espouses hourly juices of organic, vegetarian origin. The regime allows the consumption of fruit and vegetables but precludes all fish, meat and dairy produce. A few years ago, I went to London to meet a lady called Beata Bishop. She had been diagnosed with malignant melanoma in the late 1970s and had eschewed the solutions of mainstream medicine for the largely unknown Gerson Therapy. She is still with us and continues to promote the benefits of a meat-free diet rich in fruit and vegetables. I would add that not everybody with cancer has beaten it using the Gerson Therapy. But then, that is not my point.
My point is that the incidence of obesity and the poor health which comes with it would be much lower if more people sought to moderate the amount they ate and, more pertinently, what they ate. We must remember that food manufacturing as we now know it wasn't around before the Industrial Revolution. So what did people eat before that? Well, it certainly wasn't ready meals and meat was something more reserved for celebration days as evidenced by the word carnival. The carnival was the day when people broke their fast and ate meat again. Just imagine that now. Plenty, myself included, forego alcohol in the new year, but not so many would be so eager to forego meat would they?
The counter argument to this states that people had shorter lives before the Industrial Revolution and indeed they did. There were no antibiotics. Surgery was more of a threat than a promise and a whole host of other medical advancements had not yet been thought of. Oh, and there were no cars then. This probably allowed them to live as long as they did because to get anywhere, the majority just had to walk. If that were the case today, the rates of obesity would once more plummet. There is good recent proof to back this up.
Amid the endless comment following the death of Margaret Thatcher, it is widely claimed that she played a significant role in the eventual demise of communism. Of course, such a claim can't yet be made as long as the curious state of North Korea continues in its current rather bizarre format. That said, she did indeed play her part along with Reagan and the Berlin Wall really did come down to the surprise of many in my generation.
This event was to have unforeseen consequences for an island in the Caribbean. Cuba had famously remained a communist state but had now lost the long support of the Soviet Union. Life was to become very hard indeed for the people of Cuba until about 2005 when the process of capitalism slowly began to creep in.
One of the consequences of this period in Cuban history may be crucial as a pointer for our dear old NHS. Put simply, times in Cuba were so hard that food quickly became a luxury. Over eating was not a choice because there was rarely enough. This resulted in a fall in waist sizes, heart disease, strokes and diabetes. The link between obesity and cardiovascular disease has of course been documented to death. The stark reality of what happens to the strain on healthcare systems has only emerged recently and the results are truly amazing. Cars became too expensive to run so the government was forced to invest in 100,000 bikes so that people could travel from A to B. An average loss of 5Kg per head over a five year period halved the death rate due to diabetes and reduced death due to cardiovascular disease by a third. The average Cuban between 1990 and 1995 expended more calories than they were able to consume. Thus we are provided with a really valuable example of how the global obesity epidemic can be addressed. To all intents and purposes, the Cubans had just adhered to sixteen years of something remarkably similar to the Gerson Therapy.
It is seldom that straightforward though. Even though the Cuban example shows us clearly the way to do it, there is one big snag. The Cubans did not have the choice to eat any more because there wasn't any more to eat. Unfortunately, the Western way of life means that we are often guilty of throwing away more food energy than what we expend through exercise - never mind what we actually eat.The key of course is choice. Choice is a wonderful thing in many ways but when is enough enough?
The haves and the have-nots have always been with us and the works of Dickens are particularly good at portraying them. While I'm quite sure that monetary divisions will continue to feature in our lives, I just can't find the moral argument to defend the fact that millions of children starve while grown men get paid more money than they could feasibly spend for kicking a football. What has become of us? Furthermore, nobody appears to be doing anything about this. Writing this will do nothing to redress this imbalance but it will at least make me feel a bit better.
It was Nietzsche who first predicted the advent of nihilism and his words have been fulfilled to the letter. When I attend my church, it is with a heavy heart that I see the steady progress of its demise. Doubtless in a generation or two, it will become a house, a museum or a community centre and the concept of worship the remnant of a time long ago. The new God of money and materialism seems to have devotees by the million.
The headline of our local newspaper last week warned "use it or lose it" in reference to community pubs. I was struck immediately by the common thread which the pub and the church share. They have both been places of great importance in the community because they were meeting places for the people. However, they have not been replaced by a new form of meeting place but rather virtual meeting places. Can social networking sites really replace the function served by these two former pillars of our communities? Their proponents would doubtless point to the Arab Spring in which a vast swathe of North Africa was gripped by the need for social change after centuries of oppression. Perhaps this argument carries weight but it is instructive to remember that these countries have thriving churches and although alcohol is forbidden, their elders meet regularly in cafes to discuss their problems. Hence, in spite of the populist view that such countries need to adopt democracy and catch up with the developed world, I am increasingly of the view that the converse could hardly be more true. In such countries, the model of the family predominates society while our model continues to crumble and fragment like a piece of sandstone.
We in the UK have just enjoyed four decades of uninterrupted growth and standards of living which our forebears would not have even imagined. Yet still we want more. Is there no limit to the extent of our greed. I look around me and never have to look for my next meal. I am never cold and never in need of clothing. I can't even comprehend the lives of most of the people with whom I share this strange planet. Our grandfathers gave their lives in the two world wars so that the next generation would not have to face such horrors. However, I feel that their sacrifice was in vain because if they could see us now, I don't think they'd do it all again - and I for one wouldn't blame them if they didn't.
It is interesting to consider the political ideologies which polarised the world as a consequence of the World Wars. On the one hand Communism espoused equality for all while Capitalism espoused opportunity for all. With only North Korea and Cuba left as the only true Communist nations, it would be fair to conclude that this ideology was fundamentally flawed. However, compared to its Capitalist nemesis, Communism has been a roaring success. Capitalism has been a disaster for millions of us as evidenced by recent developments in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Iceland and Italy to name but a few. All these countries have been living off overdrafts the magnitude of which they couldn't hope to repay.
Could it be that a third way exists which has not yet been espoused? For the sake of us all, I sincerely hope so because I'm not sure I like what I see around me. Perhaps Dickens was just trying to tell us through the mouthpiece of Mr. Micawber and friends to give us all an insight into what the future could be. Never did he do this to better effect than with the three ghosts who visited Scrooge upon that fateful Christmas Eve. Perhaps like Scrooge we will all wake up and turn over a new leaf. Perhaps we will all start to remember those around us instead of looking after number one. Perhaps a football club winning a trophy might not be so important after all and perhaps we will feel personal responsibility for the plight of our fellow man. Perhaps we won't need to be guided by Public School educated politicians on the payroll of greedy Antipodeans desperate to extract our money from us. Maybe we can all learn to just count our blessings and be truly grateful for what we have rather than what we have not.
But back to Max Gerson. I do not suggest as he did that his Gerson Therapy was a credible cure for cancer. That would be fanciful. His fundamental argument though was sound. We are eating too much food. Too much of what we are eating is the wrong stuff and we are taking far too little exercise. Much as the medical establishment despises Max Gerson, they would do well to consider the basic message of this regime. If they did, the current challenges to world health would be radically cut. Taxing unhealthy food is not the answer. Educating people about the right food will be infinitely more effective. We have a big problem. We have continued to promote a food retail structure which actively promotes most of the very foods which we should be seeking to restrict in our diets. The food retail sector is now massive providing employment for millions. Solving that problem is the key to addressing our existing challenges to health.