Lose five pounds and save the NHS £100 million – that’s the message as the Government launches its new obesity strategy designed to put a plump nation on a diet and protect us from the ravages of coronavirus. Except, as anyone who has ever tried to slim down knows, dropping even a pound or two is far harder than it sounds.
There is a simple narrative to the Prime Minister’s Damascene conversion from the libertarian who dismissed attempts to put the nation on a diet as the ravings of the nanny state to the slimmed-down, dog-walking, early-morning-running Covid-19 survivor who warns: “Don’t be a fatty in your fifties.” But as he dusted off public health plans drawn up first by the government of David Cameron and then again under Theresa May, neither of which did much to make the national waistline any trimmer, he must have wondered if his initial scepticism was justified.
The need for something to be done is clear: seven out of 10 men are either overweight or obese; for women the figure is six out of 10. Most scandalously, one in five children are classed as overweight before they reach their 11th birthday. All are at greater risk from heart disease, type two diabetes, stroke, dementia, depression, some cancers and, now, coronavirus too. We are the chunkiest nation in Western Europe, and our obesity rate is the sixth highest in the industrialised world.
But if the problem is plain to see, the solution is far less obvious. Those urging greater government action on obesity often point to the success of the anti-smoking campaigns of the early 2000s. In the year after smoking was barred from public places in England, there were 1,200 fewer hospital admissions for heart attacks. But the message for smokers – “don’t smoke” – does not translate directly to the overweight. “Don’t eat” is impossible when we eat to survive; “eat less” is far more complex. If only the message was as simple as “exercise,” as Boris Johnson implies with his new running regime.
Except it is entirely possible to be a pretty fit fatty: experts suggest weight loss is only around 20 per cent down to exercise; the remaining 80 per cent, four of those pounds we need to shed to save the NHS a shed-load, must come from cutting calories. But which calories? Most people believe a little of what they like does them no harm, and it’s very, very hard to make them give up their weaknesses altogether, whether they be sugary drinks, or white bread, or crisps or chocolate. Even if someone does summon up the gumption to stick to a diet, weight loss, particularly by middle age, is a long term effort.
We all know of people who have lost two, three, even four stone, only to put it all back on a year or two later. Banning junk food ads late at night (does anyone watch adverts any more? Aren’t we all fast-forwarding on Netflix?); eliminating 'Buy One Get One Free' deals; getting café chains to put calorie counts on their menus like they didn’t have enough on their plates to get food off ours, they may sound like smart moves to ministers keen to do something – anything – to tackle the obesity crisis. But what we really need is something more profound than ultimately-futile quick fixes: an entire shift in our attitude towards and experience of food.
Obesity rates are highest in deprived areas, not because today’s poor are more feckless, ignorant or greedy than their grandparents, but because of changes to the way they live and work which mitigate against healthy home cooking. Tackling this will take more than a traffic light warning on frozen pizzas. As Jamie Oliver knows: children need access to healthy, nutritious meals at school, along with classes to help them reproduce it at home, both of which require funding.
Farmers need support and encouragement to forge a viable living, with proper rates paid by supermarkets, so that every household has access to fresh local fruit and vegetables. High streets, and particularly the small restaurants and pubs which produce decent food on the premises, must be supported through coronavirus, so fast food chicken shacks and kebab shops aren’t the only outlets that survive. All this takes money, and it takes time - time we may not have if coronavirus returns with a bang this winter.
Rosa Prince is a writer for the Telegraph
Source: The Telegraph