Sun, May-31-20, 10:09
I have been overweight for almost all my life and I feel powerless over food
I have been overweight for almost all my life and I feel powerless over food
Coronavirus is leading us to reconsider what we put in our bodies. It's time for Britain to take action and stop eating ourselves to death
The Prime Minister, who always behaves like a character in a novel, had a revelation in hospital. He believes that he was hospitalised for Covid-19 because he is obese.
Boris says he is serious about the obesity crisis which is, Covid-19 aside, the public health crisis of our generation. When drive-through branches of McDonald's were reopened, snakes of cars appeared as if queuing for blood, or gin. McDonald's imposed a £25 limit on orders as if they feared one SUV might suck down the whole lot.
ďIíve changed my mind on this,Ē Boris said. I hope he means it. Britain is eating itself to death and we do not even have the words to discuss it. We go tenderly, and we cannot afford to.
I didnít want to write this piece; obesity has become part of the culture wars. Last year I wrote about the fat acceptance movement, which believes that any weight is a healthy weight if itís yours. I was damned for it on Twitter and I deserved it if anyone deserves such a thing. I was too angry, and anger begets anger. I have been overweight for almost all my life and I feel powerless over food. I am addicted to sugar and the denial of the fat acceptance movement terrifies me. I donít want to love my own death.
This movement gets a lot of attention, but it isnít the reason we are obese. Itís a symptom of the crisis: people who feel so powerless they tell themselves they chose it. But the fat acceptance movement has removed the language and the will to discuss obesity. Charities are damned for noting the link between obesity and cancer. Doctors are afraid to tell people they are unhealthily overweight as if obesity is a protected identity. But the morbidly obese are twice as likely to be admitted to intensive care for coronavirus as those of normal weight. We need to talk clearly and without judgement about this.
We overcame tobacco, after all. As it became obvious that smoking kills you, and with a terrible death, the will emerged to stop tobacco manufacturers marketing their products in insidious ways. The lovely noise of the cut silk (the insinuation of wealth) and the handsome Marlboro Man (the insinuation of strength) were banned. Tobacco advertising and sports sponsorship by tobacco companies ended in 2002. Cigarette packets are hidden in shops and, when we do see them, they are decorated with photographs of blackened lungs. It was brutal, and tobacco companies were not happy Ė they sued the Australian government after it passed plain packaging legislation Ė but it worked. In 1974, 45 per cent of British adults smoked. In 2019 it was 14 per cent and declining.
Does Boris have the will to do the same to junk food: the salt and sugar saturated products sold in ever larger portion sizes and advertised everywhere? He needs to. When I was a child there was one obese child in each class. Now it is a third of all children because we have tripled our sugar consumption in fifty years. It is estimated that, by 2030, half of the global population will be obese. The cost, according to McKinsey, is $2 trillion a year.
Sugar is one of the most powerfully addictive drugs in existence and chocolate was worshipped by the ancients with good reason. J K Rowling was right to make chocolate the antidote to a Dementor attack in the Harry Potter novels, but the teachers at Hogwarts probably didnít imagine the scale of our gorging. I toured the surprisingly dull Cadburyís factory in Bourneville once. Some workers told me that many have diabetes.
The government has, over time, allowed food producers too much freedom to enchant us, and worse. Do you know who chaired the Public Health Commission under David Cameron? The president of Unilever, which is the worldís biggest ice-cream manufacturer. It sounds like a joke, but it isnít, and, unsurprisingly, it failed. What president of Unilever will make the world eat less ice-cream?
We do not protect ourselves against the food lobby as we should. Rather we blame the addicted, which is absurd. If bad food is cheap and available, and good food is expensive and harder to access, people will eat the former. Itís a class issue Ė the wealthy have the time and the money to eat well Ė and people do great damage when they suggest, as some maniac did a few years ago, that people should have their benefits docked if they refuse to visit the gym. Enforced homelessness is not a solution to anything, least of all nutrition.
Look instead to McDonald's, which sponsored the Olympic Games until 2017. (Coca-Cola still does). I toured the 1,500-seat McDonald's in the Olympic Park in London in 2012, which had words written on the walls: succulent; juicy; sizzling. Advertising works on a subconscious level, to belie what the product really is. They want us to associate it with health.
The food industry fears that what happened to the tobacco industry will happen to them and, if Boris is doughty, he will ban junk food advertising. He will ban the vast walls of sugar near supermarket tills, which the consumer must linger by, and the ďsuper-sizingĒ of individual products and the obvious Ė and disgraceful Ė marketing of sugar to children. Sugar-based products should have plain packaging. Call it ridiculous, then marvel as it works. I think sugar should be banned from vending machines in hospitals and schools and public buildings. Let people look for it. Food producers have shown themselves imaginative in the past. Let them be imaginative again.
Libertarians will be furious. They will talk about freedom Ė as if freedom for the wolves was freedom for the sheep. They will talk about choice, as if the addict has not already had its choice removed. They will make the toddler-friendly packaging of Rice Krispies sound like the Magna Carta. They will talk about Liberty and Kit-Kats in the same sentence, and I will laugh, because itís a poor right to eat yourself to death, and the words sound false these days. The pandemic has made us reconsider our relationship to our bodies and what we put in them; it will, if we use this as an opportunity, change us. Frightened people are open to change.
We sleep-walked into fast-food culture. Only 40 per cent of British children eat a meal with their parents each day, one of the lowest rates in Europe, at great cost to their nutrition. Iíll wager this statistic has risen with the pandemic, as people think more about food, and have less access to fast food. There is anecdotal evidence of families cooking and eating together, if they can afford to eat well (and many canít); of experimenting with home cooked food and finding it a revelation. My nephew is working his way through Julia Childís cookery books. Banana bread is a Twitter clichť.
When the pandemic ends this should continue. It has been offensively suggested that if only middle-class women left the workplace and cooked for their children the damage could be undone. But it canít be so dramatic. We need, when this is over, to make a little more space for our meals; to remember that delicious food can be cooked quickly, and easily, if you have the will. If we donít have time to eat well, our work-life balance is awry and our health is destroyed.
I am against banning and taxing foods because it disproportionately effects the poorer. But things could change, and slowly. Over-eating the wrong food has become habitual, that is all. Addiction is habitual; something new could become habitual too. Children could have free, and nutritious, school meals, so they learn to crave food without sugar. Processed food could be obliged to contain less sugar and fat; the portion sizes of ready meals could be reduced. (The more you eat, the more you want). This could be legislated for, sensitively and over time. Things must be tried; and we will learn.
Then there is exercise. Boris cannot time travel and take us with him. He cannot remove us, as one, to the 1950s, when we walked and bicycled all summer long, as detailed in Ysenda Maxtone Grahamís British Summer Time Begins: The School Summer Holidays 1930-1980.
Boris cannot reverse the technology revolution and burn every iPhone. He cannot make parents willing to let their children roam as they used to. The car has taken so much space that used to be for children that parents are wise not to let their children outdoors in cities. But, again, there has been a dreadful failure in public policy.
We gave our public spaces to the car, and we forgot about the cyclist and the pedestrian and the child. We have been alienated from our natural environment; again, the pandemic is an opportunity to find it again. We are exercising more, and together; we are cooking more, and together; cars, for a bit, were removed, and itís been bliss.
Boris should also consider, as he burns up the policies of the past: more sport in schools; more and affordable public baths; more tree-planting; more allotments; more public parks; more safe spaces for riding bicycles.
This will not be cheap, or easy, but we spend more on obesity each year than we do on the police, the fire service and the judiciary combined. The age of individualism may be fracturing a little. There is a hunger for big solutions because toying at the edges has not worked. Give people cheap and safe places to exercise and they will. Limit their exposure to junk food and they will eat less of it.
This pandemic is an opportunity, and it will end fast. I have thought all week, as I pondered the obesity crisis Ė I think about food a lot Ė how it would change me if some of these suggestions came to pass. The gaudy packets of sugar by the tills would disappear and, with them, most of their enchantment; exercise would seem normal, and habitual, not a chore or a bore; the children would look healthy again. We canít be bullied by the food manufacturers and their allies and the fat acceptance movement and its denial, into ignoring the obvious. We have to break our addiction to sugar, and now. Let us weigh Borisís success by that.