The Men Who Made Us Fat - review

Rachel Cooke despairs at experts who tell the obese it’s not their fault

New Statesman
Photo: Getty Images

Last weekend, I flew from Spain to Luton Airport where, as I disembarked the plane, I was struck rather forcefully by how many people had trouble not only with the stairs down to the runway but in covering the 100 metres of tarmac to the terminal building. Their problem was – I’m going to come right out and say it – that they were fat and this made walking difficult. When your thighs are colossal, the only way it’s possible to move at all is by rolling your hips to an unnatural degree: up, down, up, down. The slowness, for those of us who like to do things at a sprint, was painful to behold. Standing in line, I couldn’t help but wonder which hurt most: their flamingo-shaded sunburn, or their boulder-sized knees.

Does this sound snobbish? If it does, I can’t say I care overmuch. Two-thirds of British people are overweight and a quarter of us are obese. We are, on average, some three stone heavier than we were 50 years ago. The time for respecting sensitivities is long past. Only an idiot – or a lobbyist for the sugar producers – would deny that we need to do something, and fast. The question is: what?

Personally, I’m not sure that laying all the blame at the feet of the food and drink industries is going to get us anywhere very quickly, which is why the first part of Jacques Peretti’s series The Men Who Made Us Fat (BBC2, 14 June, 9pm) made me so mad. Is it, for instance, true that our weight gain is entirely unconnected to laziness? This is bunkum, surely. We all know how sedentary modern life can be.

The film’s trajectory – the US government’s decision to subsidise cheap food; the rise of corn syrup (fructose) as a sweetener; the battle between those scientists who wished to demonise fat and those who had it in for sugar (sugar is now enemy number one) – will have been broadly familiar to anyone who has read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation or Greg Critser’s Fatland, though it was interesting to hear that the latest research suggests fructose may influence weight more than other sugars by neutralising leptin, the hormone that tells us we’re full. On the other hand, it’s nothing short of terrifying to discover that, encouraged by precisely this kind of discovery, scientists are increasingly keen to remove the idea of personal responsibility from the debate. The word “moderation” has become, in their mouths, an un-word, excised from the lexicon of public health forever.

Perhaps you will not be surprised to hear that Philip James, of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, was most hardline on this score, bringing good news (of sorts) to fat people everywhere by announcing, in his most comforting voice, that they should roundly ignore anyone who tells them their weight gainn is their own fault. The environment works against the individual, he told Peretti, leaving him or her more or less helpless.

Are such statements wise? I think they’re madness. As Greg Critser, who was once obese himself, has noted, the vast majority of people are fat because they are slothful and gluttonous (and not for nothing was gluttony once thought of as a sin; Hieronymus Bosch depicts it, brilliantly, as a dereliction of our secular duties, for while one man stuffs his face, another man starves – something that is as true today as it was in 1500). But no one wants to hear this. Too shaming. Too final. They would rather stick their fingers in their ears and pop open
another bag of Doritos. 

Why didn’t Peretti challenge this orthodoxy? Was he intimidated by the beards and white coats? I don’t know. Certainly, there were times when he seemed to have been struck dumb by his interviewees. At one point, he spoke to a nutritionist about how difficult it is to make low-fat foods taste good (for this reason, fat is very often replaced by sugar). The example she used to illustrate the point was mayonnaise, which is made from olive oil and egg yolks. In Peretti’s shoes, I would have pointed out that it is undoubtedly healthier to eat gloopy, delicious, real mayonnaise once a month than some bland but sugary substitute every day. And more satisfying, too. But perhaps I’m just too old-fashioned for this game. Or insufficiently politically correct. Or both.