Tell people to eat less? Yes, that’ll sort out obesity

The government's package has little chance of successfully tackling our greatest single public healt

"Worthless, patronising rubbish" was how TV chef Jamie Oliver described the government's new obesity strategy in Thursday's Guardian. Not a doctor, admittedly -- although the BMA also weighed in -- but someone who cares passionately about the subject and has taken considerable pains to try and reverse the bad eating habits of British schoolchildren. He's also got a point. And, ironically, at least part of the problem is traceable back to a Tory-driven policy from the early 80s.

How do I know this? I was there. Overnight, the move from a set menu to a cafeteria system in my Yorkshire comp changed many of my friends' diets from a fairly balanced diet to one of chips, pizza and doughnuts, because, unsurprisingly, that was what they liked. Consumer choice was important, wasn't it? Except that it wasn't. Choice is not an automatic, universal social good. And those who paid for this particular schoolboy error were mostly the kids from the rougher estates, who didn't eat well at home, either.

Fast-forward to today, and there's a sense of déjà vu. Obesity. It's just about people eating too much and not getting enough exercise, isn't it? I mean, why can't they just cut the calories and get off their fat backsides?

Surprisingly this, in a nutshell, is Andrew Lansley's breathtakingly subtle and innovative strategy to combat obesity. Eat less, move around more. Rather than getting people to understand healthy eating, we are back in the 1970s, cutting calories. In other words, if you eat a diet comprised of nothing but chips, as long as you eat few enough to stay within your calorie limits, you're healthy, as far as the government's concerned.

Lansley's comments have, unsurprisingly, found approving echoes in the right-leaning press: "fat people have only themselves to blame", runs one Telegraph comment piece. But obesity is simultaneously a public health and an educational problem, not just a medical condition. And, patently, if it were that simple we would have cracked it a long time ago.

Ilona Catherine, health correspondent for the Independent, writes: "Telling an obese person to consume less...is like telling an alcoholic to have one glass of wine rather than a bottle or two." Just read this fine, brave and personal piece by blogger Emma Burnell, if you really want to understand both the daily struggle and the politics that underlie obesity.

Now, I am not, I think, one to sign up to that twenty-first century, Oprah-style craze for converting every slight human condition into an illness. But I take exception to this.

Lansley's wrong-headedness derives from four errors: his dogma that what Labour has done is nanny-state and must be reversed; that a coercive, do-as-I-say approach will work in this area, for which there is little evidence; that central government edicts are undesirable per se and do not work (er, smoking ban, anyone?); and a fatal succumbing to food industry interests -- highlighted last year by former Downing Street adviser John McTernan in the Telegraph -- in proposing that self-regulation, instead of government control, is a large part of the answer. Yes, that worked well in the City, and the press, didn't it?

It is perhaps true that Labour's attempts have not solved the problem as quickly as anyone would have liked, although it is also difficult to prove how effectively one is turning around a long-term problem which often starts in childhood. But this package, according to most interested parties, is simplistic, unambitious and has precious little chance of successfully tackling our greatest single public health problem.

Worthless? Perhaps I wouldn't go that far. But not worth much.

Rob Marchant is a political commentator and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

 

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Beware, hard Brexiteers - Ruth Davidson is coming for you

The Scottish Conservative leader is well-positioned to fight. 

Wanted: Charismatic leader with working-class roots and a populist touch who can take on the Brexiteers, including some in the government, and do so convincingly.

Enter Ruth Davidson. 

While many Tory MPs quietly share her opposition to a hard Brexit, those who dare to be loud tend to be backbenchers like Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan. 

By contrast, the Scottish Conservative leader already has huge credibility for rebuilding her party north of the border. Her appearances in the last days of the EU referendum campaign made her a star in the south as well. And she has no qualms about making a joke at Boris Johnson’s expense

Speaking at the Institute of Directors on Monday, Davidson said Brexiteers like Nigel Farage should stop “needling” European leaders.

“I say to the Ukip politicians, when they chuckle and bray about the result in June, grow up,” she declared. “Let us show a bit more respect for these European neighbours and allies.”

Davidson is particularly concerned that Brexiteers underestimate the deeply emotional and political response of other EU nations. 

The negotiations will be 27 to 1, she pointed out: “I would suggest that macho, beer swilling, posturing at the golf club bar isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

At a time when free trade is increasingly a dirty word, Davidson is also striking in her defence of the single market. As a child, she recalls, every plate of food on the table was there because her father, a self-made businessman, had "made stuff and sold it abroad". 

She attacked the Daily Mail for its front cover branding the judges who ruled against the government’s bid to trigger Article 50 “enemies of the people”. 

When the headline was published, Theresa May and Cabinet ministers stressed the freedom of the press. By contrast, Davidson, a former journalist, said that to undermine “the guardians of our democracy” in this way was “an utter disgrace”. 

Davidson might have chosen Ukip and the Daily Mail to skewer, but her attacks could apply to certain Brexiteers in her party as well. 

When The Staggers enquired whether this included the Italy-baiting Foreign Secretary Johnson, she launched a somewhat muted defence.

Saying she was “surprised by the way Boris has taken to the job”, she added: “To be honest, when you have got such a big thing happening and when you have a team in place that has been doing the preparatory work, it doesn’t make sense to reshuffle the benches."

Nevertheless, despite her outsider role, the team matters to Davidson. Part of her electoral success in Scotland is down the way she has capitalised on the anti-independence feeling after the Scottish referendum. If the UK heads for a hard Brexit, she too will have to fend off accusations that her party is the party of division. 

Indeed, for all her jibes at the Brexiteers, Davidson has a serious message. Since the EU referendum, she is “beginning to see embryos of where Scotland has gone post-referendum”. And, she warned: “I do not think we want that division.”

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.