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Weighing in at 68kg , Prashant Kumar, left, age 8, works on an exercise machine on Nov. 29, 2006 with his brother Prakeet, who comes to the gym with Prashant for support, at the Youth Visions Fitness Center in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. (TIM SLOAN/TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Weighing in at 68kg , Prashant Kumar, left, age 8, works on an exercise machine on Nov. 29, 2006 with his brother Prakeet, who comes to the gym with Prashant for support, at the Youth Visions Fitness Center in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. (TIM SLOAN/TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)


This government makes me look fat Add to ...

If you tuned in to afternoon soaps on CBC in the late 1980s or early 1990s, you still may be able to hum the corny theme song for Body Break, with sprightly hosts Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod. One 90-second spot from 1992, still found on YouTube, demonstrated leg lifts on airplane flights (three to five sets, we're told, to relieve stress) and urged travellers to find hotels with gyms.

Sponsored by Ottawa's ParticipACTION program, the pair, who to this day sell Body Break products online, made more than 250 of these public-service segments. "Until next time," Hal always signed off, "keep fit and have fun."

But such earnest, government-sponsored exhortations failed miserably. Instead, we packed on pounds and slurped back junk until, according to Statistics Canada, today half of the adults in this country are either overweight or obese, and our kids aren't far behind. The best Canadians can boast is that we're not as fat as our Krispy Kreme-loving neighbours to the south.

As waistlines expand, policy approaches in the world's better-off countries become more desperate - even downright nasty. Instead of nudging us into weight loss with incentives, as research suggests, they shove their citizens toward being skinny.

In the U.S., schools in Arkansas have starting weighing students and sending the results home on report cards, and West Virginia has tried to tie Medicaid coverage to lifestyle habits. Three Mississippi legislators introduced a bill that would ban restaurants from serving obese people (its authors later claimed it was only an awareness-raising stunt). And first lady Michelle Obama called obesity a "national-security threat" because it reduces the pool of potential military recruits.

In 2008, Japan introduced a law requiring employers to measure the waistlines of middle-aged workers - exceeding a certain limit leads to mandatory dieting and company fines.

Southwest Airlines, which requires heavy passengers to buy a second seat, feuded last year with moviemaker Kevin Smith last year over whether he was "too fat to fly." Air France, meanwhile, "encourages" a second-seat purchase but maintains that it wouldn't kick anyone off.

And Australian doctors have proposed "disgusting" people into dropping pounds with an ad campaign that depicts a man drinking congealed fat.

The shame game is a losing proposition

The message is clear: You are lazy, a glutton and a burden to society. Feel the shame, and slim down. If that worked, of course, there would be no obesity epidemic to combat. Politicians, as our current shape would attest, can't embarrass or nag us thin.

"Shame and blame - these are really quite a disturbing waste of taxpayers dollars, and they're really just politically expedient, just to show the government is doing something," says Neil Seeman, director of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at the University of Toronto and co-author of the upcoming XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame.

Obesity, he points out, is not like smoking or drunk driving, which turned out to have relatively simple public-policy solutions once the consequences became clear: tax, ban and jail.

"No one has to smoke," write Mr. Seeman and his co-author, Patrick Luciani, an expert on urban affairs and a senior resident at the University of Toronto's Massey College. "But we all have to eat."

So what can Ottawa do? Make good food cheap and bad food expensive, economists say. Change the environment, urban planners propose. And Mr. Seeman and Mr. Luciani's book makes perhaps the boldest suggestion yet: Stop spending money on public-service announcements that everybody is ignoring anyway, and give Canadians themselves the cash to develop their own weight-loss plans.

Supersize or shrink our pocketbooks, these theories say, and we'll act. After all, what makes people salivate almost as much as food? Money.

Canada's weight gain is expensive, and Mr. Seeman argues that it is due to surpass even smoking as a health burden. Cigarettes kill you; obesity may do the same eventually, but first it makes you sick, possibly for a long time. Rates of hypertension, joint pain, asthma and diabetes are rising rapidly; obesity lengthens hospital stays and spikes the risk of certain cancers.

This week, a new study put the price tag for Canada at $30-billion a year and climbing.

But how do governments formulate policy for a problem that science hasn't figured out how to solve?

Giving motivational science a workout

To lose weight, it has long been assumed, you simply burn more calories than you eat.

But researchers now know that genes can predispose even the most active to weight gain, that mental-health issues such as depression make a difference and that the environment may trump willpower - a complexity consistently absent from public messaging.

Consider how urban sprawl confines people to cars and long work hours keep them behind a desk. Time-pressed families are more likely to eat packaged food and oversized restaurant meals. Poor Canadians tend to be heavier than their wealthier neighbours, but poverty is only one factor in a big pot. (Indeed, the only people not getting fatter, Mr. Seeman reports, are the super-rich.)

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