With the rise in childhood obesity levels in the UK and other countries around the world, the latest idea here, proposed by the outgoing chief medical officer is a ban on snacking on all local public transport including buses, trains and trams.  This idea of a ban has been circulating around social media recently and has been the focus of many discussions in the last few days, but would such a ban even work, and is it even necessary?

When I first heard about this ban I laughed.  I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard and wondered how on earth it would tackle obesity as well as wonder how the government would implement it, given our current policing crisis.  But the chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies is serious about this being one of the ways to tackle childhood obesity.  But banning all snacking on local public transport won’t be so easy and although the ban does include some exemptions, with water, breast-feeding and those with medical conditions still allowed to eat, it won’t solve the current problem of childhood obesity.

Not the same as smoking

In the past smoking and even having alcohol on public transport was allowed, although these days these have been banned completely (with open alcohol containers being banned on certain networks).  The ban on smoking on public transport is something that is important to me as cigarette smoke (and smoke in general) makes me wheeze thanks to some sensitive breathing problems I’ve had since childhood.  When people smoked on public transport, it didn’t just endanger their lives but it also endangered my life too.  Cigarette smoke was something that could affect people around the smoker, and it also does nothing good for someone’s health and isn’t necessary for someone to live.  These two reasons made banning it a good thing, and it made sense to do so.

Food on the other hand though is a more issue and is difficult to ban, as food, whether considered junk or healthy, is necessary to live, we can’t survive without food.  People can’t live on air so eating and keeping hydrated is necessary.  The act of eating food also doesn’t endanger anyone’s else’s life, it’s not like someone can get obese from the person sitting next to them eating, and so most food (unless it’s a particularly smelly fast food burger or similar) won’t affect those people around the eater.  But the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) is convinced that this ban will help tackle the problem of childhood obesity because children won’t snack while on a bus or train and they won’t be exposed to adults doing the same.

Medical excemptions

Water, breastfeeding and medical conditions (such as type 1 diabetes) will be exept from the new ban.  But this won’t work practically, especially the last one, as I’ve had experience of this before.  At school I had type 1 diabetes throughout my teenage years and a few years before that too.  I always knew I was able to eat in class if my blood sugar fell below a certain level (going into what’s called a ‘hypo’ or hypoglycaemic attack), I knew I had permission from the teachers.  But the practice of taking out food and blatantly eating it in front of others, especially when the majority of your class (including those who don’t even know you) are tutting and making remarks made eating and drinking sugary drinks very difficult.  It didn’t help matters that I was also overweight and bullied for being fat so eating sweets as a fat person only fuelled their taunts.  It became such a stressful and horrible experience that I got to the point where I refused to treat hypos in class unless I was about to pass out.  I purposefully let myself get into an almost serious, comatic state because I felt too embarassed and ashamed to eat.

The same could and would happen on public transport if people felt shamed into eating when others couldn’t, and given how vile some people are towards others about even smaller things like giving up seats, imagine the anger and nastiness some people could encounter for just trying to stay alive.

Why people snack

We can’t have people simply not eating on buses and local trains.  Most people who do snack do so because they are hungry, while others may do it as a reward, to feel better about their day.  The ban on snacking is aimed at children, especially school children who travel on buses and trains after school, something I spent hours doing each day when I was a teenager.  School back then, and still now, is a long day of working and for many an arduous task of learning things.  School can be very tough for many children and teens so when they leave, having spent the last couple of hours or more not eating and doing work in the classroom, the natural thing they want to do on the way home is eat (this want is even bigger if their last lesson was PE- physical education).  For many like me, the first thing on their mind is hunger, and they won’t be eating their dinner yet, not until they get home which for many state kids can be a long journey, so the natural thing to do is to get something quick to eat, a snack.  And for those who are very hungry, a healthy and small snack like an apple, just won’t do, they want to have something substantial and often something fattening or very sweet.  These foods make you feel better when you eat them, and for many kids, especially those in secondary school, their parents won’t be able to stop them buying a snack and eating it (on a bus or before getting on).

Although there are many healthy snacks out there and I eat them these days, I know I didn’t back when I was younger.  I didn’t and I was overweight (maybe even officially classed as obese) but taking away my chances of eating junk food on a bus wouldn’t have made me a healthier and slimmer person.  I still would have snacked on the junk food, because for me, and probably many children out there, junk food isn’t just tasty, but it makes you feel better about your day.  It’s a reward for doing something difficult, a reward for going through a horrible day at school.  It’s a comfort for those who, like myself, were bullied every day.  So maybe we shouldn’t be trying to ban eating on public transport, maybe we should be trying to find out the real reason why adults and children are becoming more obese than ever before.

Tackling the real reasons

The one thing that is clear to me, every time somebody gives a new reason for doing something for childhood obesity, is that they haven’t tried talking to those who are obese or who were but now aren’t (like me).  Rather than looking at charts and figures about the rise in childhood obesity, and coming up with radical plans to solve the problem, most of which will never work (and many which are laughable), those in charge should be asking people who are overweight and obese, or even those who used to be,  how to solve the problem.  Having been on the overweight to obese weight for many of my earlier years, I know exactly why I was overweight and what stopped me and eually what motivated me to lose weight when I was older.  I know exactly what made me fat and I know exactly what could have helped make losing weight easier, and a ban on eating while on the bus wasn’t it.

The real reason I was overweight began with a medical problem but it soon became a depression problem.  My mental health deteriorated throughout my early and mid-teens due to significant bullying at school and a very unsympathetic set of doctors who dealt with my diabetes and general medical care.  Having severe depression as a young person made my confidence plummet and although I really, really wanted to be thin, so the other girls would stop calling me “Fat” and “Fatty”, I was never motivated to do so because I was simply too sad to do anything.

On top of that depression was the constant nagging of doctors to lose weight.  In an ironic way, I found that the more the doctors went on about my weight (especially my diabetic childhood consultant) the less I wanted to do anything about it.  The more the doctor went on about how I had put on weight, the more hopeless I felt about losing it.  Of course there were other factors as well, the fact that she constantly complained I wasn’t doing good enough with my diabetes, but that constant failure didn’t motivate me, it just led to more depression.

Added to that school PE was less than motivating.  To be in a class with all the fit girls and being the slowest just added to my depression.  They would constatnly complain that I didn’t do something fast enough and I never felt good.  At times when I actually tried hard though (when we had aerobics sessions or times in the weight room) and you could see I was putting in the effort and actually doing better in balancing than anyone else (weird I could balance on one leg when the fit girls would fall over all the time) I was neve encouraged and these activities were quickly replaced with competitive sports, the one thing I wasn’t good at.

It wasn’t until many years later, when all I had were positive messages about how well I was doing exercising and eating better (even on days I wasn’t doing so well and hadn’t lost any weight) did I finally feel motivated to continue the healthy eating trend and I never went back to junk food after that.

Obesity can be financial

Sure obesity is a problem of eating too much, eating unhealthily and exercising too little.  But it’s also a financial thing and something many people, especially those who’ve never had problems with money, can’t relate to or understand.  Growing up in a household where finaces were tight and we sometimes were close to or on the poverty line, I remember the strange question that always popped into my head whenever we went food shopping: Why are healthy foods (including fresh fruits and vegetables) so expensive?

Oddly, the most manufactured and unhealthiest foods out there are often the cheapest to buy with many fresh fruit and vegetables being significantly more expensive.  Cheap supermarkets aren’t always around in the local area either and sometimes the poorest of households have to make do with what they can afford, and for many that involves a lot of tinned and processed items.  Eating a lot of these foods does not help with obesity in the long term but does provide a significant amount of food on a table for each meal, so families will often stick to eating them as it’s all they can afford.  Many times those same families often have no time to cook meals either, especially if the parents work zero hours contracts or for very long hours (or multiple jobs) so fast conveniece, microwavable or even take away food is often the best and only option.

So a ban won’t work?

A ban on eating on public transport won’t work.  Even if the government implement it and police are actually used to enforce it, it won’t tackle the problem of childhood obesity.  There are many reasons why children are more obese these days, and telling them and adults that they can’t eat on public transport when they’re on their way to or from school and work will not make anyone lose weight and stay healthy.  The only thing a ban will do is cause friction and annoyance with anyone who’s hungry, and we can all just get off at the next train station or bus stop and eat while there before continuing our journey (- although this brings it’s own issues of leaving people stranded in the rain or dark because they need to eat!).

There is a rise in the amount of children classed as overweight and obese, but the figures often used to class this (a BMI chart) are themselves often an inaccurate way to test this and puts a large category of healthy individuals into the ‘overweight’ section (as I was when I lost a lot of weight and dropped to a healthly slim build but had significant muscle mass due to weight training while exercising).  There’s also more testing of children today in their weight than there ever was when I was younger which can also tip the figures to look bigger than they are.

However, even though the obesity levels are rising and it is obvious there are a significant amount of children who are now facing problems with being obese and having complications such as type 2 diabetes, they won’t be able to lose all the weight without the real cause of their weight gain being discovered and being motivated in the right way to do so.   For some it is finacial cost, for others it’s the fact they are comfort eating for living lives that are too hard to cope with.  In other cases it’s a simple lack of the family knowing how to cook (the only cooking skills school taugt me was how to bake cakes and biscuits/cookies 🙄), and for even more it can just be that they don’t want to or feel like being motivated because of the way our world is at the moment.  Life in the 90s wasn’t as terrifying and depressing as it is today, we also didn’t have the constant link to social media which for a lot of young people can be isolating and lead to increasing bullying.

So maybe we need to look at the big picture of why people are obese, of why people grow out of childhood obesity, and why others don’t.  Maybe then we can finally come up with a real strategy and plan that will work on tackling the problem.  But throwing out random ideas to punish those who are hungry and want to eat while taking a bus or train won’t solve the problem.  The officials in charge need to start spending less time on weird policies and planning of ideas and more time with the people who are and have been affected, listening to them, rather than condemning those who don’t fit into societies idea of perfect.

Have you had a problem of obesity or being overweight in the past or now?  What do you think of the ban on snacking on public transport?  What do you think could be done to tackle the rise in childhood obesity?  Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂