The Biggest Loser is the nanny-state.pdf by liningnvp


									     The Biggest Loser
     is the nanny-state

                                               © Network Ten | AAP Image

28   IPA Review | June 2011
                               The hit reality TV show demonstrates why government isn’t the answer to our
                               obesity ‘crisis’, says Louise Staley.

                                            he recently concluded            a strong link between low income and         massive financial incentive in the form
                                            reality TV show, The             unwholesome activities. More affluent        of $100,000 of prize money to lose
                                            Biggest Loser, contains          viewers, even if they are themselves         weight, plus substantial amounts of
                                            some surprising lessons for      part of the 65 percent of overweight         personal training and a fair dose of new-
                              public policy. Of all the reality television   Australians, can look at The Biggest Loser   age group therapy support. And for
                              shows bombarding us, The Biggest Loser         contestants and project all the negative     the contestants, it works. Nine weeks
                              best combines entertainment with               attitudes they carry about the poor, the     into the competition, the competition
                              the spectacle of social stratification.        uneducated and the obese.                    leader lost 47.5kg, or 37 per cent of
                              Particularly this season, where families            It is without doubt that there is       his starting body weight. Even the
                              compete in teams, we, the viewers, get         a strong association between lower           relative laggard of the competition lost
                              the chance to confirm commonly held            socioeconomic status (SES) and obesity.      39.1kg, or 26 per cent of her starting
                              views about obese people. And those                                                         body weight. It is even possible that

                              views are scathing and overwhelmingly                                                       the biggest contestant, Damien, will
                              directed at the actions (or inaction) of                                                    have lost over 100kg in four months
                              individual fat people. We believe fat                                                       by the time of the finale. These are life-
                              people are that way through lack of             campaigners                                 changing weight losses. Damien cried
                              control, through the poor choices they
                              make, through their own fault.                    have stepped up                           in the third week when he was able to
                                                                                                                          do up his shoelaces for the first time in
                                    And The Biggest Loser contestants
                              fulfil our expectations.
                                                                                their calls for                           years.
                                                                                                                                Locking every obese person up in
                                    Out of sixteen contestants, all of          ever-increasing                           a reality TV show for months on end
                              working age, only five appear to be in                                                      is not a public policy option, even if
                              full-time employment: two hairdressers,           regulatory                                it is one of the very few approaches
                              a truckie in the mines, a teacher and a
                                                                                interventions                             that clearly works. For this is one of
                              shop manager. The remaining eleven
                              claim no job or only a part-time one: at
                                                                                                                 ”        the dirty secrets of obesity—there is
                                                                                                                          little evidence that most of the usual
© Network Ten | AAP Image

                              KFC, doing the grounds for a bowling                                                        solutions to the ‘obesity epidemic’ will
                              club, marriage celebrant, DJ. From             The academic literature from both            result in a reduction in obesity. And
                              the limited biographical information           Australia and any other industrialised       answering the ‘what works’ question
                              made available, only one, teacher Jodie        country you can name highlights this         presupposes that government has either
                              Moon, has tertiary qualifications.             relationship. Similarly, an extensive        a responsibility or a desire to act on
                                    Moreover, only two contestants live      body of research documents a lack of         obesity. And that debate is far from
                              in a capital city—in the very southern         impulse control across a wide range of       clear-cut either.
                              suburbs of Sydney—and everybody else           indicators from those in the lowest SES            The first episode of The Biggest
                              lives in regional NSW and Queensland,          groupings. The poor and disadvantaged        Loser took the cameras into the homes
                              overwhelmingly in the cheaper end of           are more likely to smoke, to experience      of the contestants. We saw what they
                              the housing market.                            violence, to gamble. They are less likely    ate in a typical week and viewers saw the
                                    These are average Australians, doing     to postpone immediate consumption            results when the personal trainers had
                              average sorts of jobs, extraordinary only      for greater consumption later, in other      to live with ‘their’ families and eat their
                              for agreeing to participate in The Biggest     words, they do not save. From health         food. All four ultra-fit and lean trainers
                              Loser.                                         research, to economics, from education       gained weight, with Karate expert
                                    Yet, because of their ordinariness,      to family studies, the academic literature   Tiffany gaining 4.6kg in seven days
                              The Biggest Loser contestants confirm          is clear: the poor engage in a range of      eating and drinking her way with the
                              the general community stereotype of            behaviours that hurt them.                   Duncans. No viewer could walk away
                                                                                  What is less clear is what, if          thinking the lifestyles of the contestants
                              Louise Staley is a Research Fellow at the      anything, we can do about it. The            was anything other than destructive to
                              Institute of Public Affairs.                   Biggest Loser approach is to offer a         their health, and as became clear, their

                                                                                                      IPA Review | June 2011                    29
     relationships and every aspect of their     the characteristics of a family from       and video games, Damien’s nominated
     lives.                                      Australia’s underclass—poor, obese,        hobbies.
          Anti-obesity campaigners have in       and dysfunctional.                              The Challenors inhabit the
     recent years stepped up their calls for          Yet their wives and kids are not      regions described as an obesogenic
     ever-increasing regulatory interventions    noticeably overweight. Moreover, while     environment, with supposedly poor
     to address the impending calamity of        the three brothers and their nephew        access to fresh food, a plethora of chain
     obesity. Their solutions—increased          are presented as a family in the unreal    fast-food outlets and limited outdoor
     urban density and less cars, taxes on       world of reality TV, in actuality, they    recreation. This is regional Australia
     fast food and soft drink, banning TV        do not live near each other and they are   where there is no alternative to running
     ads for some foods for children, more       the only one in their domestic families    one car per adult and no option to
     and different labeling of packaged          who is obese. The rest of their families   ride a bike to a local shop. Inner city
     goods—are presented in the abstract         manage to live in the same suburb, eat     experts decry this sort of suburbia as
     and are often theoretically rather than     the same family meals—though not           inherently unhealthy and in need of
     experientially based. To the limited        the same volume—and face the same               bike paths and farmers markets
     extent that these interventions have        socioeconomic challenges, yet they                  and council planning bans
     been tried, the results are less than       do not get fat.                                       on fast food outlets.
     encouraging. Finland banned TV                   This flies in the face of                        Yet the Challenors
     advertising of food to children but had     much of the obesity industry’s                        get most of their
     no appreciable change in childhood          proposed solutions to Australia’s
     obesity, New York requires extensive        supposed weight problem. The
     fast food labelling, again without a        built environment could
     change in either obesity rates or average   have as many bike
     portion size.                               paths, footpaths and
          The Biggest Loser brings alive, in     neighbourhood
     graphic detail, what it takes to become     shops, yet Damien
     morbidly obese. The contestants eat         would still heave
     and drink a monumental amount. They         himself into his
     rarely move off their couches. What         van and drive to
     becomes apparent though is how aware        the bakery for a
     they are of their behaviour. They know      mid-morning
     they are overweight, they know they are     snack.
     unhealthy. They have the information,            A n d
     but they make poor choices. What The        boy can the
     Biggest Loser might have to teach us is     Challenors
     why the fashionable coercive policy         eat. We are
     positions put forward by anti-obesity       shown       the
     campaigners are seldom effective.           vast portions
                                                 and        sheer
     Poverty—The Challenors                      volume        of
     The Challenors are big blokes, the          food consumed
     biggest, Damien, weighed in at 234.4kg,     by these men. Damien’s
     while the smallest Joe, still tipped the    daily bakery run resulted
     scales at 139.8kg. Their combined           in sausage rolls, buns and
     starting weight was 698.4kg, a colossal     slice—all for him and
     weight for just four people. Of all the     every day. At a family
     families, the Challenors best personify     barbeque the enormous
     the public’s perception of fat people.      plates cannot even hold the
     None of the four has a full-time job        steaks and pasta salads Damien
     and the youngest member, Nathaniel          serves himself. Meanwhile,
     (142kg at only 18 years of age) works       at home, there are bars of
     at KFC. They live in regional Australia.    chocolate to while away the
     The Challenors appear to fit most of        hours in front of the TV

30      IPA Review | June 2011                                                                              
  calories from the local small business      characterised by emotional eating,              eating, they know they are making bad
  bakery, supermarket confectionery and       including lots of chocolate and Tim             choices and they make them anyway.
  alcohol. What it took to change the         Tams. Their stories involve failing
  lifestyles of Challenors evicted from the   relationships, overcoming breast cancer,        Alcohol—The Duncans
  house was a change in their attitude,       and turning to food for comfort. As a           The Duncan family admit to being
  not a change in the built environment.      result, these mothers are unable to play        heavy drinkers. Meg Duncan, a truck
  In a later episode, we see Damien at the    actively with their children.                   driver in the underground mines shows
  beach with his kids, a beach that has             The obesity campaigners have clear        us her life of getting home from a shift,
  always been nearby yet never previously     prescriptions for such women. For               plopping down on the sofa in front of
  used, and we see Nathaniel working out      example, the Obesity Policy Coalition           the TV, three steps away from the beer
  with a personal trainer in the park.        asserted in its submission to the               fridge she has set up in the living room.
                                              National Preventative Health Taskforce          In a normal week, Meg drinks five
  Diet—The Moons                              that ‘the restriction of marketing of           stubbies on workdays and 24 on the
                    The diets of the          junk food to children is a powerful,            weekend. Sister Sarah-Jayne reckons
                     women in the Moon        cost effective strategy.’ This implicitly       food is only ‘good for soaking up the
                      family are              assumes that mothers must be unable             alcohol before the next bottle’ as she
                                              to raise their children without such            downs up to 25 shots to fall asleep. All
                                               interventions.                                 four Duncans consume alcohol at levels
                                                      Moves to introduce traffic-             in excess of healthy guidelines.
                                                 light labelling, where some foods                 Moreover, when the Duncans
                                                are designated as ‘unhealthy’ and             aren’t drinking to excess they are
                                                       receive a red light because of         lubricating themselves with soft drinks
                                                            their nutritional profile,        and flavoured milk, both extremely
                                                               are targeted at women          high in calories.
                                                                 like the Moons, who               This is a family who would pay
                                                                  are the primary food        heavily were higher alcohol and soft
                                                                   shoppers for their         drink taxes to be introduced. Many
                                                                    families.                 would argue this would be a good thing,
                                                                          Yet Kellie Moon     with recent reports suggesting two
                                                                     knows what she is        thirds of Australians think something
                                                                      doing when she          needs to be done to curtail our alcohol-
                                                                       adds a carton of       soaked culture.
                                                                       cream to a pre-             Yet of the four families, the
                                                                        packaged creamy       Duncans also had the greatest workforce
                                                                        pasta sauce. And      attachment. The three sisters hold full-
                                                                         Jodie       Moon     time jobs and Jarrod’s greenskeeper role
                                                                          carefully decants   is regular, if not full-time, employment.
                                                                           her kilos of       Moreover, the Duncans displayed none
                                                                           chocolate and      of the anti-social behaviour or violence
                                                                      sweets to glass         that is often at the root of calls for higher
                                                                    jars to hide the          taxes to curb alcohol consumption.
                                                                     number of packets
                                                                      and the nutrition       Portion Sizes - The
                                                                                                                                              © Network Ten | AAP Image

                                                                       Additional labeling
                                                                of packaged goods has         The Westrens, from the NSW central
                                                           not been effective in any          coast, appear relatively affluent, with a
                                                           jurisdiction it has been           history of family sailing. Yet mid fifties
                                                           introduced. As the Moon            parents Craig and Sharlene, and their
                                                           women prove,              people   son Leigh and his girlfriend Lara, are
                                                           know exactly what they are         clearly overweight. While Leigh and
                                                                                              Lara have moved out of home and                                                                                   IPA Review | June 2011                  31
      consume vast quantities of fast food,       interventionist or libertarian line you        people live longer so they have more
      ice-cream and chocolate, parents Craig      belong to. The feelings of revulsion           old-age health problems, draw pensions
      and Charlene have home-cooked roasts        towards the morbidly obese felt by those       for longer and live in aged care facilities
      with old favourite desserts such a golden   not afflicted straddle the ideological         for longer. It is true that obesity, like
      syrup dumplings (a family favourite         divide. Very few people see the very fat       smoking, is correlated with a range of
      when I was growing up too). At a family     as ill, and The Biggest Loser in its own way   cancers and other diseases, however,
      barbeque, we see Craig eating a massive     reinforces this. The contestants are seen      these diseases tend to kill the obese before
      platter including a mashed-potato           to lose weight quickly and in very large       they have the opportunity to require the
      sandwich, while breakfast is mountains      amounts through their own actions.             usual expensive medical interventions
      of bacon.                                   What we do not see, in the filtered            of old age such as ophthalmology, hip
                                                                                                 replacements and post-stroke care.
                                                                                                       So, if the obese are not the cause
                                                                                                 of higher taxes or health insurance
                                                                                                 premiums, what is the rationale for
                                                                                                 public policy interventions? It is no more
                                                                                                 rational to attempt to ‘solve’ obesity on
                                                                                                 the grounds of self-harm, than it is to
                                                                                                 refuse to treat sports injuries. Both
                                                                                                 groups engage in behaviours that caused
                                                                                                 harm, both need medical intervention,
                                                                                                 yet there are no calls to ban middle-aged
                                                                                                 men from riding bicycles despite clear
                                                                                                 evidence it results in accidents, heart
                                                                                                 attacks, sprains and breaks.
                                                                                                       What we can see from The Biggest
                                                                                                 Loser is that obesity is not caused by
                                                                                                 the absence of traffic light labelling but
                                                                                                 is the result of personal choices. What
                                                                                                 is required to tackle it, therefore, is
                                                                                                 behaviour modification, not nanny-
                                                                                                 state regulation.
                                                                                                       There may be another reason
KFC’s ‘Double Down’ is currently in the spotlight | Creative Commons | Adam Jackson              to intervene though, and it is far
                                                                                                 more complex and controversial than
           And Craig is up-front about his        prism of reality TV, is the counselling,       justifying coercive action for misplaced
      dislike of vegetables, even though he       the dieticians, the medics and the             financial reasons. As the contestants
      knows they are good for him. In fact,       support that transforms most, but not          in The Biggest Loser show, and research
      when he is eliminated from the house he     all, of the contestants into people who        supports, there is a group of low income,
      is thankful because he gets to stop being   believe they can be successful, in weight      poorly educated, socially excluded
      force fed huge amounts of greenery.         loss and in other areas of their life.         people, sometimes with mental health
           The Westrens have portion control            Yet, increasingly, the medical           problems, who engage in a range of
      issues—they just eat too much. However,     research shows that once a person              destructive behaviours, of which obesity
      there is no public policy intervention      becomes morbidly obese, the range of           and particularly morbid obesity is one.
      that could improve their diets. They do     co-morbidities diminishes the likelihood       For the group at the bottom, who
      not eat large amounts of processed food;    of successful weight loss. Diabetes, high      in multiple ways find contemporary
      instead, it is high fat food, home-cooked   cholesterol, circulatory problems, the         society beyond their skills to manage,
      from scratch.                               list is long. The morbidly obese are ill.      early intervention to deliver robust life
           If taxes and labels and bans will      But they are not, in a lifetime healthcare     skills and educational attainment is the
      not solve obesity then what actions will    sense, expensive. The little publicised        necessary intervention, not ill-founded
      be effective, and should government         truth is the obese, like smokers, are          coercive headline grabbers.
      care? Answering these questions is not      cheaper on the budget than the healthy-                                                 R
      merely a question of which side of the      weight non-smokers. Healthy-weight

    32     IPA Review | January 2011                                                                              

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