Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Lesson from the Pacific. (Obesity)

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Lesson from the Pacific. (Obesity)

Article excerpt

For most of human history, wealth I has meant health -- at least when compared with poverty. The rich of any society don't just live better than the poor, they live longer, and this was so even before there were effective medical treatments that the rich, but not the poor, could pay for.

So strong has the correlation been between wealth and health that we have come to expect that increasing incomes will translate into increasing lifespans, ad infinitum. But at the British Association for the Advancement of Science last week, Professor Andrew Prentice of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine pointed out that a steadily rising proportion of our children are grossly obese. Since obesity is the harbinger of a host of illnesses, some of which reduce life expectancy considerably, it is possible that we shall see a fall rather than a rise in life expectancy. Increasing Wealth will not save us if we stuff ourselves with bad food.

I once had a practical lesson in the limitations of the association between wealth and health. It was in the little Pacific island of Nauru, which I used to visit regularly, and which for a time was the richest place per capita on earth, thanks to its phosphate rock, over which its inhabitants obtained financial control in 1968 from the British Phosphate Commission.

The islanders went suddenly from subsistence to great wealth. They could import all the labour they pleased, and avoid all work themselves. But their island, being only ten miles in circumference and its centre being a mined-out moonscape, offered little scope for distraction. Many passed the time by eating too much. Before long, the average consumption was 7,000 calories per day.

The Nauruans' taste in food was not sophisticated: indeed, it made McDonald's look like haute cuisine. …

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