Society has been affected by a ‘tsunami of lard’ throughout the ages and there is no one simple solution to tackle obesity, a leading expert has said.
Professor Mike Gibney from University College Dublin said that while many people blamed the food industry for soaring obesity levels, obesity and gluttony had been a problem in society from the Greeks and Romans onwards.
There was a “tsunami of lard” which came in waves throughout history - so there was no point in looking for one simple solution, Prof Gibney told the Food Safety Authority of Ireland's conference.
The regulation of food intake was one of the most complex areas of human biology, and we were the only species who entrusted its food supply to others.
Hunger was the least important factor as people often ate to be polite or for social or cultural reasons, with anthropology, biology, sociology and psychology all playing a role.
Multiple measures would be needed to combat obesity, and while everything should be on the table for that, the results would have to be measured to find out what actually worked.
Professor Gibney said that he would be the first to vote for a sugar tax if he thought it would work.
But he seriously doubted Irish Heart Foundation claims that it would cut the number of obese adults by 10,000, as people would just seek the same calories elsewhere.
Delegates at yesterday’s conference heard that two out of every three Irish adults is overweight or obese, as are one in four children and it costs the state over €1bn a year in medical costs lost productivity.
Meanwhile the FSAI says the food industry has a window of opportunity to make its products healthier with less fat and sugar, or else face tough new controls.
Stringent measures like those which cut road deaths may be needed to change behaviour around the production and consumption of food, said FSAI chief executive Professor Alan Reilly.
The food industry must voluntarily move to reformulate processed foods with reduced fat and sugar or face strict regulations, he warned.
“Failure to take the lead in this area will result in more stringent regulation and tighter controls to assist consumers make the healthier choices,” he said.
However while sugar or fat taxes were often called for, inactivity also played a huge role in obesity - so you could make the same argument for a tax on sofas, lifts or computer games.
Tactics such as the Bike to Work scheme were examples of highly successful measures that encouraged healthier lifestyles, he told an FSAI consultative council meeting on the topic of “Who is Responsible For What We Eat”.