26 February 2018

There is an obesity problem – it just isn’t the government’s fault


I’ve lost count of the number of stories about fat people which feature Mr Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum lecturing us that it’s all the fault of Conservative governments. He was at it again this morning, as Cancer Research UK released figures about the diet of millennials.

Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, said: “The figures are horrifying. They are the result of successive governments paying only lip service to tackling an obesity crisis that was already making headlines at the beginning of the century.”

Those same Conservative governments that other versions of Mr Tam Fry — those lobbyists who work for poverty action charities rather than obesity inaction charities — say have starved people to the point of food bank dependency. “Should a nurse be using a food bank, Prime Minister?” shrieked the Left during last year’s election. Better than overeating to the point of obesity, you might think.

Even within their own moral universe there is no coherence to the ranting of the Left. I mean, what is it: that people are so poor they can’t afford to eat? Or they’re so poor that they can eat only mechanically-reconstituted “meat” held together with saturated fat and washed down with carbonated sugar-water?

Or is there some intersectionality going on here: people exhibit the discrimination of heartless capitalism in different ways, and that millennials, it turns out, manifest their cosmic angst by eating crap? Many of them certainly appear to waste whatever disposable income they do possess on half-pints of hot milk from various mega-corporations, which they clutch to their chests, and comfort-suck. If a charity talked about the prolonged infantilisation of our young, and the reasons for that, I’d maybe listen.

Because unlike Christopher Snowdon, whose work I admire, I do think there’s a problem with obesity in the UK. Anyone with eyes can see that there are way more fat children than previously, and that they tend to live in poorer areas. Like marriage and property, a normal diet is at risk of becoming the preserve of the middle-classes.

Yet those same middle-class people swoop from fad to fad, like vultures pecking at whatever carion is to be found in the psychological desert of their post-industrial lives. It’s gluten that causes my bloating! Hermione’s not able to process lactose! It’s sugar — we must ban all sugar from everything because evil corporations yadda yadda yadda. Whether manifest as fatness, or as fetishisation of pseudo-science, the “food problem” — to the extent that it exists at all — isn’t to do with money. The problem is to do with agency.

People have agency (oh, for a government minister who’d point out that non-fattening food is cheap — trust me, I’m a vegetarian; a sack of lentils goes a very long way) and if they choose to eat “bad” food for comfort — so maybe there’s a happiness or loneliness or family dysfunction issue that could do with some attention — it remains their choice, and that freedom is worth a lot more than whatever floats Jamie Oliver’s crusading boat.

I’m sympathetic to the arguments made by James Bloodworth, in his new book Hired. People who labour in soulless Amazon factories don’t feel like “boiling broccoli” when their shift is finally over.

But they should. There’s no other magic available than to reject food that makes you feel rubbish, and choose food that gives you life. Perhaps if we overthrew capitalism, removed choice from consumer life, and replaced it with socialism, then people would eat more healthily. Commissar Jamie might choose our food for us, if he’s got a kitchen left from which to serve it. More likely we’d end up like Venezuelans, eating dogs and clumps of grass.

Where there’s an undeniable issue of (political) ill-health is among lobby groups and charities, and their attempts to subvert political discourse — and to remove choice — in order to further the objectives of organisations for whose aims not one single living person has ever voted.

Bloated, publicly-subsidised bodies, gorging themselves on the incomes of people who’ll never earn a fraction of what their entitled CEOs take home. There’s certainly a problem with over-indulgence in modern, public-sector heavy, Britain. I just don’t think it’s entirely the fault of millennials.

Graeme Archer is a statistician and writer.