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Obesity — the epidemic.


A MONTH OR so ago I watched part of a TV panel show, Sunday Morning Live, discussing overweight and obesity. Fast food outlets and manufacturers of fizzy drinks were demonized and held to be the main cause of this ‘epidemic’, allegedly capitalizing on poverty. The poor cannot afford decent meals and are forced into eating junk food.

This narrative has pervaded society. I heard it repeated last week by a friend of mine (a university professor). Is it true?

I live in the Netherlands and was in McDonald’s recently enjoying a hamburger and an orange juice. (I don’t like their chips much, so I didn’t bother with them.) As a meal goes I imagine it was quite balanced: protein, starch and fruit with a smattering of vegetable. It was not expensive but not incredibly cheap, costing around £5. The striking thing about this was that there was not any evidence of obesity — neither among the customers nor among the staff. As far as I can see, this is replicated throughout this country. If fast food outlets were responsible for an obesity epidemic, surely we would see it most strikingly in McDonald’s? In fact you can eat rather healthily in McDonald’s, who, like most other hamburger joints, offer a range of decent salads.

Fizzy drinks were described as ‘pure poison’ by one of the panelists because, according to him, they contain excessive amounts of sugar. All the fat people I know swig Diet Coke which contains no sugar at all. I don’t drink Coke because I don’t like it much. Both my wife and son do. Of the three of us, I am the most inclined to fatness. In our case, is the obvious cause of overweight the non-drinking of Coke?

Neither Coca Cola nor McDonald’s were mentioned by name on Sunday Morning Live. The panelists banged on about how litigious these sorts of companies are. Faced with this populist drivel, one can’t help sympathizing with these multi-nationals.

WHAT ABOUT POVERTY? If the assertion that obesity is a consequence of poverty were true then poverty has undergone a staggering mutation. When I was a child in England in the 1940s and ‘50s, poverty was the cause of emaciation. As a country we were poor, food was on ration. The overweight were rich. They were fat cats. Today fast food is not especially cheap. It normally costs £20 or more to get pizzas or hamburgers for a family of four. I am not a great cook but I can easily make a decent meal for four for half that. Quick meals abound; Spanish omelet; bacon, potatoes with onions and peas, spaghetti carbonara with lettuce. The list goes on — and all for less than £10. We buy fast food because we don’t want to cook.

Eating too much is the cause of fatness. This is true for the rich as well as the poor. My view is, that despite the explosion of cookery programmes, many people still can’t cook and hate to try. My remedy is to teach cooking as part of the national curriculum.

If we are to come to grips with obesity we need to be honest about it. We need to bring words such as gluttony and laziness back into our vocabulary. We need to accept responsibility for what and how much we eat. We should stop casting the poor as hapless victims of fast food and fizzy drinks.

Nick O’Hear is chairman of Tension Technology Ltd. He last  corresponded with the Fortnightly on the topic of quantative easing.

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