Education and obesity
One of the biggest social and health problems facing the developed world is obesity. Obesity has implications for the health services, for insurance, for social policy and welfare, for transport, for public safety, for the fashion industry, for economic performance. In the United States it is estimated that obesity costs the economy some $75 billion annually, and affects such things as the size of clothes, the design of cars, even the average width of coffins and graves; 25 per cent of American adults are thought to be obese. But apart from the material costs there are also the psychological issues, including questions of self-esteem and self-confidence.
While obesity has an impact on almost every corner of society, it has particular significance in education. In Aberdeenshire it has been estimated that 8 per cent of primary school pupils are obese, and as these and other young people progress through education the problem gets worse. Across a number of countries serious questions can be asked about catering and eating in the education system. In Ireland there is generally no school catering, and as a result students leave school at lunchtime and, typically, eat crisps and chocolate, or junk food. In countries where there is a school catering service the quality of the food is often very questionable.
Nor does it get better, necessarily, at university, where catering is often built on what one might call the fast food culture.
However, as the problem gets worse, there are now university research centres on obesity. Some of the leading ones include centres at Yale University, Sydney University, Bristol University, and my own Robert Gordon University. One of the notable aspects of the work of these centres is that, apart from research, they also do outreach and public education in relation to obesity issues.
Obesity is one of the key health and social problems of our age. Universities need to harness their expertise to support drives for management of this problem and the search for solutions. At the same time, educational institutions at all levels need to ensure that their students enjoy appropriate and healthy diets. The future is at stake.