TORONTO, Canada — In January, as the TV cameras rolled, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford stepped on an industrial scale and tipped the needle to an eye-popping 330 pounds.
Even he seemed taken aback.
“It's the heaviest I've ever been,” he said. “I've got young children — this is not healthy. You’re running the city, and you can't be doing all this at 330 pounds.”
(Below is a video of the weigh-in, posted by Canada's Chronicle Herald.)
Thus began a very public battle to lose weight, one that reflects a country becoming ever more obese.
Ford launched his “cut the waist challenge,” a public health campaign that invites residents of Canada’s biggest city to slim down. For his part, he vowed to lose 50 pounds by mid-June and to track his success with weekly, public weigh-ins.
It started off great. In the first week, the 5-foot-10-inch Ford lost 10 pounds. He took up jogging and weight lifting and cut back on sweets.
“It’s pretty hard,” he said at his second weigh-in, noting the excruciating temptation every time he spots an ice-cream shop while driving. “And Dairy Queen? I go nuts. I just got to keep going.”
Ford is Toronto’s populist, Tea Party-type mayor. He was elected in November 2010 on promises to axe the city’s $9.2 billion operating budget. It hasn’t gone well. Once charged in Florida with drunk driving and possession of marijuana, he has struggled with anger management issues in office, admitting to swearing at a 911 operator, and accused of flashing the middle finger to a woman while driving.
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He’s also proved spectacularly inept at building coalitions on city council, squandering the majority he once enjoyed by turning allies against him and losing one policy vote after another. Many now see him as a lame duck mayor.
As his political troubles grew, so did his struggle to lose weight. After managing to lose 22 pounds, he gained four, and canceled two weigh-ins at the last minute, without explanation.
Then, last week, in what appeared to be a moment of weakness, Ford was caught on cell-phone video by a woman laughing at the sight of him entering a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. “He’s supposed to be losing weight,” the woman is heard saying as she films the mayor.
“The guy’s trying his hardest — well, maybe not his hardest, but he’s trying,” Ford’s brother, Doug, a city councilor, also trying to lose weight, said of the video.
Doug Ford was nonetheless confident his brother would meet the 50-pound challenge: “He’ll make it — if I’ve got to get a piece of duct tape and stick it across his mouth, and put a little hole in there for a straw.”
A growing number of Canadians can relate to Ford’s weight troubles. A 2010 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on obesity in 33 countries ranks Canada as the eighth fattest. The United States is the most obese and Japan the slimmest.
In March 2011, Statistics Canada, a government agency, compared obesity in Canada and the US. It found that 24.1 percent of Canada’s adult population is obese — calculated as a “body mass index” (weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared) of 30 or higher. In the US, 34.4 percent suffers from the same problem.
The study found that during the past two decades, the prevalence of obesity in Canada increased by 10 percentage points for men and 8 percentage points for women. In the US the increase during that period was 12 percentage points for men and 10 percentage points for women.
“Canada is facing an obesity epidemic,” Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief public health officer, told an Ottawa health summit in February. He warned the problem is becoming particularly acute among children.
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“The risk is that this will be the first generation of children not to live as long or as healthy as their parents,” he said. “That indeed is a great tragedy.”
The Canadian government estimates the cost of obesity — from health-care costs due to weight-related diseases like type 2 diabetes, to loss of productivity due to premature death — at up to $7 billion annually.
Experts identify inactivity, bad diet, and low income as factors that contribute to obesity. Some have called for the restriction of junk food advertising to children, but Canada’s Conservative government has so far balked at the idea.
The growing struggle with obesity nationwide seems to have resulted in widespread public empathy for Rob Ford’s weight struggles. Indeed, when the Toronto Star posted the KFC video on its website, most readers came to the mayor’s defense.
“I disagree with the mayor on every single issue,” one reader wrote, “but this video is grotesque and mean-spirited. Losing weight is a difficult prospect at the best of times.
“Call him out on his policies,” the reader added. “Do not stoop to body-bashing.”
A poll conducted the day the video appeared found Rob Ford’s popularity on the rise, despite his long string of political setbacks.
Setbacks in the mayor’s public battle against obesity may be helping his political standing, if not his health.