At first, I thought it must be something to do with the government’s proposed “hate speech” law. But no, the picture of a set of dentures locked together belonged to a story about controlling love – extreme love of food, to be precise.

Yes, the obesity epidemic has reached the point where pep talks, easy-peasy diets and even the prospect of the government paying for your stomach stapling operation can’t stop people eating themselves to death.

Enter, DentalSlim Diet Control, a device designed by New Zealand and British researchers that can lock a person’s mouth almost shut. It could be particularly helpful for people having to lose weight before they undergo surgery, and for diabetes patients for whom weight loss could mean remission.

It works like this: a dentist fits magnets with locking bolts to a couple of upper and lower back teeth. This leaves a mere two millimetres through which to imbibe a liquid low-calorie diet, but it does not restrict speech or – most importantly – breathing. The device is used for two-to-three weeks at a time and the locks can be released by the user in case of emergency.

“Participants in a Dunedin [NZ] based trial lost an average of 6.36kg in two weeks and were motivated to continue with their weight-loss journey,” reports the New Zealand Herald. They all said it was tolerable.

It is a bit shocking to think of a person’s jaws having to be locked because they just can’t stop eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and Domino’s pizzas. Not very dignified. But, to paraphrase a Gospel saying, “If your mouth is a stumbling block to you, cut it off.”

Over-eating is only one of the vices human beings are prone to, and not a particularly new one. The Book of Proverbs (23:20) admonishes: “Be not among winebibbers or among gluttonous eaters of meat.” And the Christian tradition made gluttony one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Hippocrates said: “Everything in excess is opposed by nature. If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.”

That was in the fifth century BC; but, for all the progress we humans have achieved, we are further away from that Hippocratic ideal than ever.

For several decades the World Health Organisation has been talking about an “obesity epidemic” which comes with a huge price tag in terms of health spending on related morbidities such as diabetes and heart disease.

Last month the WHO published an update with some very scary figures. It says obesity rates have tripled since 1975. Based on 2016 data, 1.9 billion adults (18+) were overweight (more than a quarter of the world’s population) and of these 650 million were obese. In 2020 an estimated 39 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese.

Among the causes WHO highlights increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat and sugars, and an increased in physical inactivity due to the sedentary nature of many forms of work, changing modes of transportation and increasing urbanisation. These things are associated with “development” (economic change) and a lack of compensating policies in areas such as health, urban planning, food processing and marketing.

The great paradox behind these facts and figures, however, is that obesity in developed countries – and increasingly in developing countries – is more common in poorer sections of the population.

For example, in New Zealand, where one in 10 children (ages 2-14) are obese, the prevalence of obesity in this age group varies by ethnicity and socio-economic status. A survey two years ago showed that 29.1% of Pacific and 13.2% of Māori were obese, followed by 3.4% of Asian and 7.2% of European/Other children.

Children living in the most socioeconomically deprived areas were 2.7 times as likely to be obese as children living in the least deprived areas.

Everything from colonisation to families not having enough money for sports equipment has been blamed for this state of affairs, and no doubt there are many causes. Researchers are adamant that it’s not the fault of individuals and that the remedies are social and political – greater allocation of resources to increase the education, income and power of the deprived.

But poverty is not the whole story – there is obesity in a significant number of well-off households too – and the focus of remedies is not a choice between society and the individual.

Here I would like to revisit the work of economist Maria Sophia Aguirre on the importance of the home, which I referred to in another article last week.

Professor Aguirre points out that over the past 50 years (the WHO’s benchmark year for obesity is 1975) economists have promoted a veritable cult of paid work at the expense of the work of the home, which is ignored as unproductive.

Yet it is in the family home that rich and poor children alike learn the virtues and habits that will arm them against excesses and deficits of all kinds, including diet. Regular meals, prepared, with help, by a family member who has the time to shop (economically) for fresh food would go a long way to prevent obesity caused by impulse eating of highly processed foods.

A parent who is not working full time but is at home when the children are there can also ensure they help with chores, get outside to play (sports equipment is not always necessary), limit their screen time and ensure they get enough sleep.

Good family relationships will foster respect in children for themselves (including their health) and others, and a sense of responsibility to the wider community. Society, at this stage of game, certainly has to play its part, but unless it facilitates the irreplaceable work of the home social programmes will fail.

It is wonderful that technology has been devised to help some very unhealthy people get their lives back. That jaw-locking should be necessary, however, should give us all pause for thought.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet