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The Politics of Food: Why Are We Fat?

In recent days there have been calls for the government to change tack on it's food policy and tackle obesity seriously.

Joshua Wooliscroft

Naked Politics Blogger 

Britain is the third fattest country in the Western Europe. Over 2 billion people worldwide are overweight, 670 million of which are obese. 13% of children in the developed world are obese. I am personally terrified by these statistics. What really frightens me is that no government’s policy seems to have rolled back the tide.

I want to start by saying; this is not about fat-shaming. This question boils down to trends, not individuals. We need to ask why the last thirty years has seen the waistline of this country, and the Western World, grow precipitously? We do not need to mock auntie Janice for being three stone overweight and always on a diet.

As I have said this is a global issue, but in the interests of brevity I am going to concentrate on the United Kingdom. It strikes me that we are fat because most of our food is made in laboratories and factories instead of kitchens. In a generation we have stopped cooking. Techniques such as slow braising cheap cuts of meat have been lost. We are less active; 78% of office workers spend too much time sitting down. 45% of women and 37% of men spend fewer than 30 minutes on their feet in a working day. A recent study showed that working in an office doubles your risk of heart attack. Finally the constant bombardment of carefully crafted advertising has ensured that an ad-mans copy has replaced intuition when making meal choices. This is coupled with confusing messages about dieting and nutrition being constantly published. And the huge pseudo-health food industry wants to convince you that something from the microwave is better for you than one you than a home cooked meal.

This is worrying enough, but the real tragedy is that we are now moving into the second generation of people made fat by their environment. Nearly a quarter of British children are overweight or obese. Research shows that overweight children remain overweight, this is a cycle we need to break.

As I touched on earlier, the actions of governments seems to do little to reduce the number of overweight or obese people. Some actions have brought the process to a standstill but nothing seems able to reverse the trend. So what is to be done? In 2013 a group of doctors wrote the nation a ‘prescription’ suggesting among other things a 20% tax on sugary goods, banning fast food outlets from opening near to schools, and outlawing the advertising of fatty, sugary or overly salty foods before the 9PM watershed.

Whilst these suggestions are all sensible, they sound like a treatment for symptoms, rather than the problem as a whole. I agree strongly with a sugar tax, in much the same way that we artificially raised the price of tobacco when the dangers of smoking were revealed. I would go further, and have the tax to include all processed foods doctors judge to be unhealthy; when a jar of pasta sauce has the same sugar content as a can of Coke why tax one and not the other? I would then ring fence this tax income, and pump it into real, mandatory food education. It is a sad thing for a Conservative to admit, but it looks like the state may have to step in and teach children how to cook and eat. Improving the offering in terms of school meals, more stringent rules regarding lunch boxes, and adult nutrition classes should also be a part of the programme.

The government also needs to generate clear, simple guidelines on cooking and nutrition; advise free of faddish notions. A diet focussed on real food, the kind of food every generation before the 1970s ate. This is a long process, one focused on changing attitudes, but with the right support and investment the generation coming through schools today could buck the global trend.

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