Food is one of the most crucial issues of our time. In America, 13 people die every hour from food-related illnesses, but we have no real solution to the obesity problem – the issues are myriad, and too ingrained in all corners of our life and our profit-loving world for any one idea to work. And politicians like simple ideas. So while there should indeed be a tax on sweetened fizzy drinks, that won't solve the problem on its own. We need a full-scale culture shift, something no government can achieve.
The facts are chilling: one in seven hospital patients in the UK are diabetic; 3.8 million of us have diabetes; one in three is overweight; one in four is clinically obese; and 37% of 11-year-old children are overweight or obese. We are one of the most unhealthy countries in the world. Even moderate obesity will reduce life expectancy by an average of three years. And living with diet-related diseases means heart trouble, cancers, strokes, liver failure, wobbly knees, bad skin and amputation of limbs. It means hospitals spending fortunes to enlarge beds, operating tables, doorways and wheelchairs. Food-related illnesses now kill more people a year than smoking does, and disable an unknown number.
If I were talking about cancer or HIV, there would be a redoubling of efforts to "find a cure". But unlike many cancers, there is a complete, lifetime, free cure available. Just change what and how we eat.
So why don't we? Where food is concerned, we're complicated. We aspire to extreme thinness as advocated by fashion and reinforced by the cult of celebrity, but in reality we nearly all struggle with the pounds. We see people who are grossly fat, their wobbling, sad bodies being winched out of windows, and class that as "obesity", distancing ourselves from the term. As a recovering alcoholic it's a syndrome I'm familiar with – I might be getting drunk but I still have a roof over my head, unlike a "real" alcoholic, who sleeps on a park bench. Are we seriously so weak-willed that we can't say "no" to that extra cake? Go back just 30 years and very few people were obese. Go back 50 years and virtually no one was. For women, size 10 and 12 was the norm, rather than 14 and 16 today – and we ate three meals a day, with tea thrown in for special occasions. Most of us didn't eat unless we were sat at a table at a regular time of day.
That simple fact represented a problem for the food industry, which its army of chemists solved by designing products that override the "full" button, working like any other addictive drug to convince you that you really, really want – even need – that extra slice. Combine sugars, salts and fats, substances once so scarce we never evolved any need to limit their consumption, and you create a sensation as powerful as many banned substances. Then destroy the concept that eating takes place just at mealtimes. Enter any large supermarket today and you'll find whole aisles stocked with snacks.
The odds are stacked against us. The food industry spends over £1bn a year on marketing in the UK, compared with the paltry £14m spent on the government's anti-obesity campaign. Food companies can afford to pay for premium sites on supermarket shelves, so the most tempting products are always within reach. I fall for this as readily as anyone, more than happy to consume crisps or cake at any time, day or night. I never want to binge on broccoli. I have been addicted to smoking, drinking and briefly to drugs, and recognise the same "hit" from sugary, salty foods, and the same "cravings" for more. I haven't touched a drink or a drug in many years and I quit the fags almost four years ago, but food, because we have to eat, is far more complex.
Despite all the evidence against sugars and processed foods, governments worldwide do precious little. But inactivity is no longer excusable. That's why, this week, we are launching an initiative in two London boroughs, Lambeth and Croydon, to transform the way we eat. We're starting with the schools, building on the School Food Plan which Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent launched for Michael Gove earlier this year. Free school meals for kids between five and seven years old start in September, and cooking goes back on the curriculum. Schools will use vegetable gardens not just for fun but also for teaching. Parents will be invited in to learn to cook with their children. We're going to be leaning on local businesses to pay to keep school kitchens open in the evenings and during school holidays, so that we can teach local communities about food and cooking.
But it doesn't stop there: we're going to lobby fast food outlets, local restaurants, supermarkets and food manufacturers to change how and what they sell. Fast food outlets, for instance, can massively cut the calories in their meals by simply changing oil, or changing the size of the box the food is sold in. Small food producers will be funded and encouraged. Local companies will be urged to join in: after all, their staff are the parents of the children of today and tomorrow who we must not let grow up in ignorance about the importance of food to their bodies.
We take inspiration from Finland where, in the 1970s, they reduced annual mortality from heart disease by 80% by changing the food culture. Like us, they began in the schools and spread the healthy culture outwards to parents.
Right now, the environment in which we make food choices, especially in poor areas, is extremely unhealthy. Food is on sale everywhere: in garages, cinemas, newsagents, pharmacies. And less than a pound will buy you chicken and chips, sugar-laden cakes, a big bag of crisps. Anna Soubry, when she was health minister, was shouted down for saying poor people were fatter than rich people, but she was right. Good food costs more.
A major problem when trying to treat obesity is precisely that. Those making the rules tend to be better off and able to buy better food. Deborah Cohen, an American physician and author of A Big Fat Crisis, advocates drastic measures: restaurants should serve single portions and food should be banned from shops which aren't dedicated to food.
There are no signs of her measures being adopted anywhere yet, but if food-related illnesses continue to be responsible for more deaths worldwide than any other cause, do we have a choice? The global food industry, in its scramble for ever increasing profits, is not only trashing the planet but is effectively killing us. No one would buy an expensive car and fill it with lighter fluid and then expect anything but disaster. Yet we are happy to fill the world's most complex machine – the human body – with weird junk. Products which are not made by the power of the sun, but manufactured in the dark in tubes and machines, have triggered a health crisis which is spinning out of control.
Dr Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organisation, sees obesity as the tip of the iceberg, pointing towards a catastrophe in which the world has to manage millions suffering from long-term chronic illness. Prevention has to be the better option, but the root causes, she notes, lie outside the control of the health sector, and countries that have tried to legislate against unhealthy food – such as Australia, The USA, Norway and Turkey - have been hit by lawsuits from an extremely wealthy, rich and ruthless industry which can hire the best lawyers money can buy. Even the American President caved in when he decided that ketchup (along with pizza) be classed as a vegetable as a way to reduce pressure to fund more vegetables in school lunches.
Like Cohen, Chan does not believe obesity to be a failure of personal will, rather of political will at the highest level. Our flagship project may seem small, but if we pull it off, maybe we will give our government sufficient ammunition to take on the power of the food industry. We have to start somewhere.
by Rosie Boycott
July 18, 2014
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