It seems the government’s strategic approach to reducing obesity can be contained in two words; Eat less. Whilst it one sense it’s fantastic to have a government strategy that’s so concise, and which avoids so assiduously all the usual flatulent prose of the average government pronouncement, in every other sense this is hopeless. It’s tantamount to addressing the problem of having a leaking roof in the town hall by telling the staff to bring umbrellas. “Take personal responsibility for keeping dry! Stop blaming us for the problem, and do something positive. Take control. Stop expecting nanny to look after you!”
However admirable it might be to encourage a sense of personal empowerment by locating the solution at an individual level, the fact remains that such an approach is notable more for its convenient letting the food industry off the hook than it is for its having the remotest chance of success. The root of the distortion of our diet is both simple and well known: it is the hugely greater density of calories that our food now contains than it has traditionally done, combining in a devastating synergy with our equally dramatic reduction in physical activity. Eat less is not in fact the right answer at all. The right answer is to eat differently, and to exercise more – either by doing something special labelled “exercise”, or better, by simply having a more active way of life, eschewing lifts, half-mile car journeys, and no longer preferring a remote control to getting up from the sofa.
And here’s the rub. One half of the obesity crisis is calorie dense food. Calorie dense food is food that contains high levels of fat and sugar. Fat and sugar have been commoditised by the food industry, and are now sourced from wherever is cheapest on the day. So what was already cheap is getting relatively cheaper all the time. If you want to maximise your profits, you do not need to consult a rocket scientist to know that the way to do so is to create foods with the cheapest ingredients, but which can nevertheless be sold as expensive, highly “value-added” products. Expensive, that is, in relation to the cost of their ingredients. In absolute terms, many of these products are very cheap indeed.
Inevitably, these cheap foods are overwhelmingly purchased by poorer citizens. I suspect we have two quite distinct kinds of obesity in our society. Fat rich people who do simply eat too much, but are frequently eating too much good food. And fat poor people who may not be eating too much at all, but are eating the wrong things, namely the sugar and fat-stuffed products of a food industry fixated on profit, and not remotely concerned with health or nutrition.
The answer to this, however, is not a “fat tax”. Taxing healthy items such as butter or olive oil is counter-productive. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the reductive thinking of “nutritionism” that attempts to substitute chemistry for a healthy food culture, and which demonises things such as butter, is much more part of the problem than it is the solution. The problem is the industrialisation of food processing. Processed food contains hundreds, thousands indeed, of ingredients that are nothing to do with food, and nothing to do with nutrition. Not in any one product, of course, although ingredients lists can easily run into the tens. These ingredients are the things that are needed to keep together the Frankenstein structures of what now passes for food, and to impart to them such things as “mouth-feel” and taste substitutes to make up for the fact that otherwise they’d taste of nothing but anonymous, generic, fat and modified starches. Emulsifiers, texturisers, nutrients to replace those lost by processing, things to stop the added water from dripping out, and all the other paraphernalia of a chemical industry that makes food-like stuff for us to eat, and which is resolutely based on fat, sugar and standardised starch fragments.
If the government really does want to produce an obesity strategy that can both be summed up in a pithy few words, and which might even work, it would be this: Eat food, and get off your arse. But it wouldn’t stop merely in addressing what individuals should undoubtedly do if they want to avoid obesity for themselves. It would also address the food industry with the startling message that to be properly called a food industry, you really do need to produce food. Not a chemically stabilised and flavoured food substitute. The quickest and simplest way of doing that would be to outlaw any food product that contained more than two or three items which were not themselves foods. Foods, in case you’d forgotten, are things that grow in the ground, or come from the bodies of animals.
It won’t happen though. Because this government (and just about every other government since the war-time coalition) is not at all interested in health. But it is interested in the profits to be made from the adulteration and distortion of our diet, and of our food culture, such that remains of it.