Science - June 24, 2004

Lecture series De Wereld kicks off with sombre message

“An economic crisis with oil prices ten times higher,” suggests Rob Dortland of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports. “That is perhaps the only thing that can save us.” The audience laughs, but a chill is felt. Dortland’s message is serious.

Rob Dortland is 56, but when he was young there was no indication that half a century later the world would be teetering on the brink of a disaster. “In those days there were no fizzy drinks and no cookies. Children played outside, and if you needed to go somewhere you walked, or got on your bike. People were healthy, and there was a balance between what you ate and the calories you burned.” This is no longer the case. Children stay indoors because it’s dangerous to play outside. Traffic makes it impossible to play on the street, and children are taken everywhere in the car by their parents. Schools have reduced the amount of sport and physical activity on the timetable. Vending machines with sweets are on every corner. We spend more and more time in the car and sitting in front of screens. And we are becoming fatter at an alarming rate. So what can be done about this? This was the theme addressed by a series of lectures held in De Wereld on 22 June. Scientists, captains of industry and interested gathered to hear what could be done, and were probably disappointed. According to the speakers, all Wageningen graduates, there is not much we can do about overweight.

Damaged kidneys

Professor Martijn Katan of WCFS projects a couple of lists on the wall behind him. “Figures from the United States,” explains the nutrition expert. “The percentage of people in their thirties with diabetes in 1990 and in 1998. As you can see, the figures have almost doubled, and that is nearly all due to overweight. Seventy percent of the population there is too heavy.” Figures for the Dutch population are not yet easily found. “Maybe they are around, but I just can’t find them,” says Katan. “That might be the case. But if they are not available then we must have them quickly. Then we will know what we can expect.”

Whatever the future is, it is not likely to be a pretty picture, predicts Katan. “Heart and circulatory diseases, damaged kidneys, eye diseases, diabetes, some forms of cancer. We already know that all these are related to overweight.” And, even forgetting the misery of diseases, the financial consequences will be enormous. “Smokers, for example, are not such a problem for the government, even though the government is unlikely to admit that publicly. Statistically, most smokers die once they are already past the age that they cease to be productive, and they die fairly quickly. That means they don’t cost too much. But people who are overweight can live for a long time thanks to medical technology. And that is going to make things very, very expensive.” Treating heart and circulatory problems with the latest medicines already costs tens of euros per day. Pharmacists are developing new medicines and they are likely to be even more expensive.

Sombre outlook

The representative of industry who is present, Dr Jan Weststrate, is no less sombre than the professor. “No other issue has been picked up on as quickly by our company as that of overweight,” he announces. “As far as we are concerned it’s the most important problem we face at the moment.” Unilever wants to do something about the situation. “It fits in with our mission.” He projects the message from his laptop onto the screen. “Unilever’s mission is to add vitality to life. We meet everyday needs with brands that help people feel good, look good and get more out of life.” But just what Unilever can do to help matters, Westrate is unable to say. “Of course we are not going to stop producing ice cream. If we did that we would be denying our consumers a bit of pleasure in life.”

Rob Dortland of the Ministry of Healthy does not know what the solution is either. “We will publish a memorandum at the end of this year,” he says. “But it will not contain any concrete recommendations. It is more likely to be a call to broaden the debate and to encourage collaboration, something like that.”

Further back in the auditorium, a member of the audience Mieke van Spanje is getting angry. She is the chair of the Dutch Obesitas Vereniging (Society for Overweight People) and, according to the statistics, is herself overweight. She represents a large group of people with the same problem. “We know everything about overweight,” she declares. “We are faced with it every day, sometimes for a whole lifetime. Why don’t you ask us if we have anything to contribute? Maybe you could learn something from us if you are planning on making diet foods. Why don’t you come and discuss things with us?”

Westrate of Unilever is not only talking for himself when he replies that this is not necessary. “I can’t see what that would contribute,” comments the businessman. Van Spanje sits down again, disappointed. A Wageningen scientist is the next with a comment. At Animal Sciences we know all about fattening animals, he says. We must be able to provide valuable knowledge and information to help fight obesity?

Media hype

“Fat is visible,” says Van Spanje in the break. “Look at me. It’s the first thing you notice if you look at me. So that’s what society latches on to. But society forgets that obesity is a symptom, and not the problem itself. There are also overweight people who do not have health problems, and thin people who are ill as a result of a bad diet and too little exercise. The problem is a health problem, but ‘health’ is an elusive term. So instead we talk about weight.”

According to Van Spanje heavy people are suffering from the current media hype about obesity. “The hunt is on for fat people. We eat too much, we are lazy, we are unhealthy and are the cause of rising healthcare costs. How do they think it is for us to be bombarded with these messages day in, day out?”

Martijn Katan at least is anxious to make it known that this was not his intention. “I know people who have been overweight for years,” he says. “In the end they have given up trying to do something about it. You won’t hear me blaming fat people for their own weight problem. To smokers I will say that it would be better if they were to stop. It’s difficult, but not impossible to give up. But overweight? It’s difficult to do much about the problem as an individual. Look at the statistics.”

Willem Koert