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Thin people don’t just eat differently to fat people. They live completely different lives

One of the biggest lies about obesity is that it’s simply about eating too much and not doing enough exercise – problems are often far deeper rooted. 

This summer, I’ve spent the parliamentary recess reading improving books, learning Mandarin and nominating my celebrity friends to do the ice-bucket challenge. No, wait – of course I haven’t. Like most people, I’ve responded to having more free time by filling it with reality television.

My particular favourite is an American import called Obese: a Year to Save My Life. In the show, Chris Powell – a personal trainer who looks like a cross between a thigh muscle and a televangelist – takes on patients who need to lose half their body weight. On the whole, over the course of a year, they do. And as I’ve watched more of the programme, I’ve become convinced that behind the blindingly white teeth and unnervingly chirpy demeanour, Chris Powell is a stone-cold genius, and possibly even the man to save the NHS.

One of the biggest lies about obesity is that it’s simply about eating too much and not doing enough exercise. It’s instructive to note how, when people talk about the subject in public, often the person faux-innocently asking, “Why not just eat a bit less, then?” is carrying a little extra padding, too. The stark fact is that most of us are fat: two-thirds of Britons are overweight or obese.

That’s because our society conspires against us and our best intentions. Outside the big cities, a car is a necessity; soon you hop into it for even the shortest trip to the shops. We sit, or stand, still for hours at work. Our bodies, which evolved to savour sugar and fat as rare and precious sources of nutrition, are overwhelmed by fizzy drinks and junk food. Even as we get more puritan about alcohol, food remains the drug it is socially acceptable to consume in public: where a previous generation might have had a drinks tray in the corner office, we have a packet of Hobnobs in the desk drawer.

The truth is that thin people don’t just eat differently from fat people. They live differently. The morbidly obese need to raze their life to rubble and build it again from scratch. On Obese: a Year to Save My Life, the subjects take three months off work to concentrate on their exercise routine. The production crew goes through their cupboards, chucking out the crisps and doughnuts and filling them with whole grains and fruit and vegetables. They get classes in cooking healthy food that tastes of something (lemon juice and chilli are usually involved). Their living rooms are filled with treadmills and free weights. In some cases, their families sign a “contract” to support them. If they reach their target weight, they are given skin removal surgery – so they aren’t dragging round six square feet of the person they used to be.

Even taking into account the inevitable behind-the-scenes manipulation that goes on – this is American reality TV, after all – the results are extraordinary. But what consistently surprises me is why the people involved in the show became obese. For some, the weight crept on after a divorce, or the death of a child, or a bout of depression. For others, being overweight is part of a general feeling of lack of control over the course of their lives. One episode followed Jacqui McCoy, who went from 25 to 11 stone and who started overeating when she was raped at the age of 14. As part of the year-long transformation, many of those trying to lose weight speak to a therapist, and that must be one reason for the programme’s success.

“Obesity is a symptom,” is how Emma Burnell puts it. The Labour blogger had a gastric sleeve operation this year and has since lost eight stone. “Everyone who is overweight has a different reason.” She believes any policy response to Britain’s ballooning weight has to address the psychological as well as physical aspects of obesity. “It would have to bring in mental health, because, in my own experience, I knew all the good rules about food and exercise – but there was something stopping me.”

And this is where I think Obese: a Year to Save My Life has a lesson for the NHS. We already know that obesity costs the health service more than £5bn a year, both through increased rates of heart disease and other illnesses, and through the costs involved in adapting medical equipment for bariatric patients. Yet the kind of holistic, intensive intervention offered by Powell just isn’t available – our counselling services are overstretched, and the NHS deals far better with emergencies and acute cases than it does with chronic, complex problems and the need for preventative medicine.

Admittedly, gastric sleeves and bypass operations are available – though there is not enough capacity, as Burnell found out when her operation was outsourced by King’s College trust to a private hospital in Chelsfield. (In Wales, the health service plans to increase its bariatric surgery capacity from 80 to 300 a year by 2018 to cope with demand.) As for skin removal, it is defined as cosmetic surgery and is rarely funded by the health service. That means patients are given a second chance but saddled with excess skin that chafes, and gets inflamed, and perhaps infected. It’s certainly a disincentive to do exercise.

There’s an echo here of “Million-Dollar Murray”, Malcolm Gladwell’s celebrated essay for the New Yorker – in which he calculates that over a decade, a single homeless man called Murray Barr cost the state of Nevada a million dollars as he bounced around police stations and hospital emergency departments. “It would probably have been cheaper to give him a full-time nurse and his own apartment,” Gladwell concludes.

The same is true of the morbidly obese. It would cost the health service many millions to offer them intensive support – cognitive behavioural therapy, diet education, free exercise equipment, plus gastric surgery and skin removal where appropriate. But in the long run, it will cost more not to offer people a second chance. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.