Britain’s obesity problem is always someone else’s fault

Fatness democratised: a condition that was once the preserve of the rich has spread wildly - A Sphere Projecting Against a Plane, James Gillray, 1792

Every so often a bit of BBC archive material from the 1960s or 70s goes viral; either a vox pop video or footage of urban life. The differences are myriad; the cut-glass vowels, the London fog and red buses. People of all ages and classes appear exceptionally smartly-dressed, with not a tracksuit in sight. Most strikingly, almost no-one is fat. Current data bears this out. The average man now weighs almost a stone more than in 1993 while the average woman is 11 pounds heavier.

Clothes sizes in high-street shops have expanded commensurately too; pulling the wool over our eyes (and spare tyres). A woman’s size 12 today corresponds to 14-16 then, as you discover when trying on vintage or retro clothing. Stretchy waistbands were unknown.

This burgeoning problem brings ever more drastic calls for action. This week, government “food tsar” Henry Dimbleby urged ministers to treat junk food like cigarettes, with tobacco-style packaging. We already impose sugar taxes, advertising restrictions and order restaurants to display calorie counts on menus – perhaps because these are the easiest things to regulate.

But since the problem remains one of culture, such interventions are often fruitless, recalling Sir Humphrey’s “politicians’ logic” from Yes, Prime Minister; “Something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it.”

Contrary to common belief, we don’t actually “eat more” than our 60s and 70s forebears. All the evidence indicates that per capita consumption of sugar, salt, fat and calories has been falling in Britain for decades. What has changed radically is our relative exercise level. Millions of jobs have shifted from manual labour to offices. We drive where we previously walked or cycled.

Yet health gurus regularly dismiss the importance of exercise as a weight loss tool. “You can’t outrun a bad diet” is a common refrain, even though this is self-evidently untrue. Three of my friends are cycling fanatics. Using half your annual leave developing saddle sores bicycling across Europe isn’t my idea of fun, but they can (and do) eat anything they want and still look like they’ve wandered down from Mount Olympus.

Our slimmer forebears might not have been pumping iron at the gym, but they did spend long hours on their feet. Nevertheless some “experts” dispute or downplay the effects of activity in the face of common sense, history, even basic thermodynamics.

The quality of ordinary 60s and 70s food is often overstated; a limited range dominated by stews and basic roasts bulked up with pastry, batter, dumplings and vegetables that weren’t so much “boiled” as seethed into a murky gunge. Yet people observed proper mealtimes and rarely snacked.

Today, we have more variety than ever but less sense of ceremony around food. It’s become far more socially acceptable to scoff mindlessly on the sofa; and not just for urban dwellers for whom a proper dining table, let alone a dining room, may be the stuff of myth. Nations with lower obesity rates, such as France, have retained their mealtime rituals far better.

Variety and moderation are the keys to health, and yet society favours extremes, both in diets and in physical attributes. Male body ideals tend towards maximum henchness (compare the James Bond of athletic Sean Connery with hyper-muscled Daniel Craig).

Female fashion fluctuates between lauding obesity and skeletal thinness; rarely do “mid-sized models” (UK size 10–14) make an appearance. Some popular diets are equally drastic. For most people, cutting out entire food groups is unsustainable for long. Much of what passes for “clean eating” displays an unhealthy fetishisation of particular foods as “good” or “bad”.

Take the current mania over “Ultra-Processed Food”. Science writers such as Christopher Snowdon and Stuart Ritchie have complained that this singles out foods based on arbitrary criteria and may be too broad a category to be useful. For instance, most kinds of brown bread are deemed unhealthy simply because they contain a preservative that you wouldn’t find in your kitchen.

There are risks to encouraging uncertainty over whether a product is UPF or not, and a strong class element too, since non-UPF alternatives are often expensive. At its worst, dedication to this fad has become a quasi-moral exercise; a badge that the middle-classes can wear to prove their superior concern for their diets – more Mr Pooter than Mrs Beeton.

The whole debate often seems dogged by fatalism, with technocratic tweaks and nudges replacing personal responsibility. Obesity is never treated as anyone’s fault, but as a mystifying affliction. The very word “fat” is couched in euphemism. This week, one anti-sugar campaigner spoke of adults “living with overweight or obesity”, whatever that means. It is often claimed that due to poverty and “obesogenic environments”, maintaining a healthy diet is impossible for poorer households, but cooking from scratch is usually cheaper than grabbing a takeaway.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but more positive interventions are surely needed; encouraging people to learn to cook healthily and pursue an active lifestyle, rather than fruitlessly attempting to hector or tax them into compliance. A good start would be proper home economics classes in schools for both sexes; ideally covering not just meal preparation and nutrition but personal finance and budgeting. Ultimately, changing bad habits will depend on culture, willpower, and conscious choice.

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