"Life is a play that does not allow testing. So, sing, cry, dance, laugh and live intensely, before the curtain closes and the piece ends with no applause.” Charlie Chaplin.
When I was in my teens I was drawn to plays by European authors that were later identified as “Theatre of the Absurd.” One of these was by the Swiss playwright Max Frisch. I even had the rights to produce his play "The Firebugs" but never got around to staging it - one of life’s’ little disappointments.
The story is a simple one. A prosperous man named Biedermann is concerned about a team of arsonists who are burning up houses in the city when a knock comes at the door and a man manages to bully and charm him into renting the attic. Through the course of the play another lodger joins in and they begin to move explosives and drums of gasoline into the house. The self-satisfied Biedermann is keeping up with all the warnings and latest reports in the news about the arsonists and prides himself on never being taken in. Ignoring his wife’s concerns, he continues to assist the strangers in the attic even to the extent of helping them move drums of petrol into the house. He refuses to believe he could be deceived. We know this will not end well but are amused that he ignores every warning and every obvious act. Reviewing last week’s health news I was reminded of this play.
Against the background of daily warnings that the diet in North America and Europe is killing us, business at all the fast food chains are booming away and processed food is the flavor of the month. Calls for control of the food industry are treated as communist plots or infringements of something referred to as “freedom of choice.” The freedom seems to be all about choosing our favorite disease.
The biggest epidemic in the world, according to the World Health Organization, is a group of chronic non-communicable diseases. They include cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke), several cancers, chronic respiratory conditions, and type 2 diabetes. These diseases account for over 60% of deaths worldwide with four-fifths of those fatalities being in people of low and middle-income countries. And all of them are preventable to a large degree. We know the causes but do nothing; we resemble our old friend Biedermann. We read all about it, shake our collective heads and then pop out for a happy meal.
Diabetes is a great example of this process. According to a recent report in the British medical journal Lancelet, there are 347 million people worldwide with diabetes. This is double the number in 1980. The primary cause of this dramatic increase in the disease is cited as the spread of the western fast food diet in developing countries. The most prevalent symptom of this illness is the growing rate of obesity. Obesity rates are skyrocketing everywhere except where there is starvation. According to the authors of the study, commissioned by the World Health Organization, health care systems all over the world will be engulfed by this tide of diabetes in the coming years. It is the young and the poor who are most at risk but we will all pay the price.
Our cultural resemblance to Biedermann continues in our ability to be mesmerized by the fast food machine. McDonalds fast-food empire sponsors the Ronald McDonald House charities, which supports housing for parents of critically ill children so they can visit their children in the hospital. Any critique of this organization would seem petty except that many of those children are victims of the industry footing the bill and gaining the public sympathy (and brand recognition). The company sees the clown, Ronald McDonald, as representing an “active” and “athletic” role model. Celebrities line up to grace the opening of each new facility local businesses chip in and the community feels good about itself. What is that sound in the attic?
When we put this together with the recent Kentucky Fried Chicken promotion to donate money to diabetes research and treatment when people buy a gallon of soda, we are well and truly into the Theatre of the Absurd. Next, cocaine dealers will be donating money to drug rehab centers for every drug ounce that’s bought. But it is not all bad news.
A recent study in the UK showed that using a low calorie diet and losing weight could reverse diabetes. Well that’s more like it. Reverse the problem by cutting down the fat and sugar - no medication, just simply a diet change. You would think that would cause a stir but don’t count on it. Fast food, processed food and all the industrialized crap that passes for edible is an intrinsic part of modern culture.
Information about health is only effective with public support and a desire to change. We all have a real task in front of us – we don’t even have a clown to sell the story. The effective power of healthy eating must be communicated to people in a way they can understand and with the simple and practical advice essential to shifting diet habits. Every month we see people who make this change and realize that good health actually makes life better and that getting off the modern diet is not the trauma they imagined. Fast food is toxic not cute, no matter how many clowns dance around or how much guilt money is paid to charity.