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22 July 2021

Obesity is a social problem – we need to stop treating it as a personal one

Rather than lecturing the poor on what to eat, we should address the material deprivation that encourages weight gain.

By James Bloodworth

I learned a lot about myself during lockdown, particularly in terms of my relationship with food. I have always had a problem with binge eating – gorging on junk food to palliate emotional lows. This destructive habit reached its nadir during the winter months of last year, when my life might as well have been one of those awful reality TV shows with titles such as “Overweight and house trapped”.

Apparently I was not alone: a study conducted last year by King’s College London found that almost half (48 per cent) of those questioned said they had put on weight during lockdown. As we shut ourselves indoors to “stop the spread” of Covid, it seems that overeating turned into one of our collective coping strategies. Notably, almost half (48 per cent) of people in the King’s College survey (the same percentage who admitted to overeating) said they were feeling more anxious and depressed than usual.

The Covid-19 mortality statistics were a constant reminder that over-indulgence was a reckless course of action – the risk of becoming seriously ill with Covid was significantly greater the more weight we piled on. Boris Johnson himself said he was “way overweight” when he was hospitalised with Covid.

Yet looking at our collective weight gain through the lens of a rational cost-benefit analysis would be to miss the point. That has always been true for me personally. I was always acutely aware that inhaling vast quantities of crisps and chocolate is bad for my health. But binge eating was an emotional coping strategy produced by my ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Lockdown – and the anxiety that accompanied it – simply amplified it.

I was reminded of this last week when the latest update to Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy was published. The report by the co-founder of the Leon chain of restaurants and the son of David Dimbleby made several key policy recommendations, including new taxes on sugary foods and a system whereby the NHS prescribes vegetables to poorly nourished patients.

The strategy, first published in June 2020 and updated regularly, feeds into the government’s own plan to tackle what it calls Britain’s “obesity timebomb”. Ministers have already banned junk food television advertising before the 9pm watershed and calorie counts will soon be added to the menus of restaurants and cafes that employ more than 250 people.

[see also: For those of us recovering from eating disorders, calorie-labelled menus will be devastating]

However, the government has already rejected the proposals for new levies on salt and sugar contained in the latest report, which Boris Johnson dismissed as “extra taxes on hard-working people”.

And yet there is some evidence to suggest that food levies – of £3 per kilogram on sugar and £6 per kilogram on salt – do encourage food manufacturers to produce less fattening products. Since the introduction of a “sugar tax” on soft drinks in 2015, drinks manufacturers have cut the amount of sugar in their products by a third. Importantly, the cost of the sugar tax has not been passed on to “hard-working people”.

But even so, sugar taxes and vegetables on the NHS are themselves something of a distraction. When the National Food Strategy unveiled its latest proposals, stories of doctors writing prescriptions for broccoli inevitably made headlines. Yet underlying the strategy is a more important point: “The best way to tackle food poverty is to tackle poverty”, the report notes. “When funds run short, it is often spending on food that gets cut first.”

Here we begin to get to the root of why Britain has one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe (surpassed only by Turkey and Malta and the worst in western Europe). Britons work some of the longest hours in Europe and spend about half as much time preparing an evening meal today as they did in the 1980s. Current social trends are likely to make the problem worse. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, child poverty in 2019-20 was 4 per cent higher than in 2011-12 (a rise of 700,000 children).

My own diet deteriorated during the dark days of lockdown as food (typically stodgy, sweet and greasy) became one of the few reliable sources of pleasure in a world that felt like it was collapsing. Something similar happened in 2016 during the six months I spent immersed in low-paid and precarious work for my book Hired. Toiling away in an Amazon warehouse, or as a care worker, or as an Uber taxi driver, my working life began to lend itself to unhealthy forms of consumption. As I wrote at the time:

“When we walked through the door at midnight at the end of a shift, we kicked off our boots and collapsed on to our beds with a bag of McDonald’s and a can of beer. We did not… come home and stand about in the kitchen for half an hour boiling broccoli.”

Thus Johnson is not entirely wrong to be suspicious of nannying initiatives as a blunt instrument to wean people (typically poor people) off junk food by hitting them in the pocket. The idea that the poor must be coaxed and prodded into healthy eating betrays a residual middle-class snobbery that is embedded in the national psyche: it is more than 80 years since George Orwell observed that those suffering from material deprivation don’t want cabbages and lentils, but would rather eat “something a little bit ‘tasty’”. “The less money you have,” writes Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, “the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food.”

Food choices are often a by-product of one’s emotional state. This is why “fat-shaming” does not work. You do not stop people from gorging on junk food by making them feel worse, which is liable to have the opposite effect. Owing to ADHD I ate to feel better about myself; during the darkest months of lockdown, I and many others appear to have done the same. Material factors encourage such destructive habits, as Orwell and anyone who has ever lived in poverty will attest.

In Britain we are particularly good at telling the poor what they should eat. But if we are really serious about tackling obesity, we might show a bit more interest in how they feel about the rest of their lives.  

[see also: How Brexit is already changing what we eat]