Ready Meals or Ready Excuses: Is the Microwave Really the Reason for an Obese Britain?

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in

As I re-heat my cup of coffee in the microwave, several thoughts run through my head about what I’m going to do, how much work I need to finish and various mundane things that occupy one’s mind. I have never opened the door of my microwave and wondered, however, whether this little white machine that sits in a corner of my kitchen has anything to do with obesity. But this is precisely the question that researchers are debating this week. They believe that the introduction of the microwave saw the beginning of an obesity trend in Britain.

There is no doubt that Britain is growing bigger. But can our growing size really be blamed on the microwave? It is unlikely that Percy L. Spencer, inventor of the microwave, intended that. The link between obesity and the microwave suggests that with the microwave came the invention of ready meals. And presumably, with that, our desire to eat them. Hence, it is argued, the microwave has "triggered" the obesity problem we face today.

The experts are probably right in identifying a correlation between the microwave and weight gain. However, to point to anything that is more than a mere correlation would be dangerous and lead us to ask what role the individual plays in maintaining his own health. It is worth exploring the relationship between advances in technology and the impact on health, and, more specifically, how much moral responsibility lies with those who give society these inventions and how much with the user himself.

There is a difference between what is available for us to use and our choice to use it. The availability of a microwave does not necessarily mean that we have to use it and it certainly does not mean that we have to use it for ready meals. For some foods, the microwave is a good and an effective way of retaining nutrients. Only a few weeks ago, research suggested that steaming broccoli in the microwave was an effective way of retaining its anti-cancer properties. The microwave is both good and bad, depending on what we put inside it and how often. Eating a ready meal once a year will have quite a different impact on one’s body than will eating one everyday, regardless of the role of the microwave in re-heating the food.

Even if the microwave could be held responsible for obesity it would not be alone. Sweets, cakes, biscuits, ice-cream and other such foods contribute to weight gain but rarely have anything to do with microwave cooking. Once we start attributing blame, we won’t be able to stop. If we blame the microwave, we will also have to blame the manufacturers of ready meals. Once we blame them, we would have to blame the supermarkets for stocking them. Most importantly, we will have to blame ourselves for buying them. Ultimately, the blame rests with us, the user.

By blaming the microwave for obesity, we are undermining the control we have over our own diets. In fact, if there is insufficient demand for ready meals, the companies that currently produce them will have to stop. We, as adult consumers, control the market; the market does not control us, at least not to the extent that we can attribute direct blame to a mere heating device. If we were to extend the argument beyond microwaves and food, we would find that we could hold external factors only minimally responsible for our actions. Much of what is available to us can be put to good use or badly misused. When we discuss car accidents, for example, we discuss them in terms of bad driving, etc. We do not blame the invention of the car itself. The same car that could result in an accident can also be used to take a critically ill person to hospital. A car is only a problem if it is misused. What we do with it depends on us, not on the car, just as what we put inside a microwave depends on us and not on the microwave itself.

There is a bigger issue at stake here. If we, as a society, seriously believed that certain inventions were to blame for our problems, crises and downfall, then we ought to ban these inventions. Doing so would compromise our liberty and force us to give up freedoms that we consider important. Either we ought to accept moral responsibility for our actions or, if we believe that we have an unavoidable dependence on external factors, we ought to have limits imposed on us that ensure that we are protected from harm. If we do not want these restrictions, we ought to be able to take responsibility for our actions regardless of whether these entail determining how many ready meals to eat or the conditions under which it is safe to drive.

There are times when it is appropriate to look to external factors for shared responsibility with regard to health-related problems. When children watch advertisements for junk food and then want to eat it, we are right to partly blame the media as well as the food companies for targeting children. But we could also blame parents for letting their children watch these advertisements and for buying them the junk food. This idea of shared responsibility is applicable only when the target audience is not an adult audience that is capable of rational thought and decision-making. To blame external factors under circumstances that surround decision-making in a competent, rational adult would only be to shift responsibility that belongs to us onto someone or something else.

In the case of children, other external factors such as lack of education regarding food, fewer green spaces, busy parents, etc. might be reasonable factors to blame for weight gain and ultimately obesity. These are complex factors and deserve more consideration than is possible to give them in this article. For the purposes of this discussion, however, it is sufficient to merely list them as a way of showing that external factors do contribute to obesity under some conditions. However, where obesity exists in an adult who is capable of rational thought and decision-making, it is morally inaccurate to just blame external factors.

Sometimes it is reasonable to blame psychological factors for obesity. In some cases, adults who are under extreme stress or undergoing depression may turn to food as a source of comfort. Even if they consume some ready meals using a microwave, the microwave would not be the cause of their obesity; the causes would be stress and depression. There are various ways of looking after these individuals including counselling, medication, etc. Whatever might be suggested as a way to help them with their problems, taking away their microwaves is unlikely to help them as that is not the reason for their obesity.

Just as we cannot blame cars for car accidents, microwaves cannot be justly held responsible for Britain’s obesity crisis. Obesity in competent thinking adults is a matter of personal responsibility.