Boris Johnson hopes to slim the nation’s waste-line. After the Americans, we’re the fattest country on earth — and it shows. Johnson has experienced first-hand the danger that COVID-19 poses to those with higher body weight.
But it’s not just coronavirus which presents a threat to the overweight. Fat-related health issues mean that obesity costs the NHS a burdensome £27 billion every year. But obesity doesn’t just weigh heavily on the public purse; more importantly, obesity has a huge social cost: if you are in the poorest 10% you are twice as likely to be obese than if you’re in the wealthiest 10%. If you are black you are also more likely to be obese. Obesity stints people’s prospects, and hinders how far they can go in life.
Boris Johnson’s plans to tackle obesity involve banning fast-food adverts before 9pm and launching a new 12 week weight loss plan app. These plans are deeply flawed. The key to understanding the problem is to understand the basic philosophy at the heart of this issue.
The government’s logic can be summed up in one paragraph, taken from the government’s website: Tackling obesity is not just about an individual’s effort, it is also about the environment we live in, the information we are given to make choices; the choices that we are offered; and the influences that shape those choices.
These new proposals mark a step further from the sugar tax of the Cameron-Osborne era, a scheme which Johnson so often railed against as patronising and nannying. This new scheme marks the government’s explicit approval of the need for the state to regulate your weight.
This is a Conservative government stating that your obesity is not a matter of personal choice, but of a lack of information or food options, or even personal circumstances. It crucially shifts the burden of responsibility from your shoulders, to the government’s, and subsequently, the taxpayer’s.
My eating habits are not the concern of the government, nor should they be, yet this policy makes them so. It tells the people who currently have an issue with eating (and I consider myself among them — in all my life, I have never had a BMI of under 25 for any longer than 3 weeks, and I’m not proud of it) that it is not their responsibility to fix it.
This has dangerous implications for people’s lives, and for society as a whole. If individuals are not personally responsible for their health, and if we live our lives expecting the government to pick up the bill for our fat problem, then we will continue to overeat.
It plays into the same mentality that has made it so difficult for our workers and school children to return to normality during the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis came, the government stepped in and made our wages its responsibility (and not only that, picked up half our restaurant bill as well), and so now Britain is reluctant to return to life as it was before: a life in which Rishi Sunak doesn’t pay your salary, stump up for your double glazing, or buy you a new bike.
I believe (and it is divergence from this belief that will bring the most problems for our society and our economy) that tackling obesity is profoundly about individual effort. Making people realise the extent to which they are responsible for what they put in their mouths is key to making any progress in the field of obesity.
There are, of course, a number of strategies the government could employ to make this process easier for people, and to help people to realise this sooner. I am not saying the government should do nothing, however the successful implementation of the right strategies will only occur if we have correctly reinforced the need for individuals to take control of their own health.
Firstly, we have to understand that we are facing the problem from a standing start. Our country doesn’t have the sort of rich food heritage with which other nations are blessed. In France, it is quite normal for young people to know the difference between a Hollandaise and a Béarnaise sauce, and in Italy, pasta making sessions are a community affair. In countries in which food is really understood, it is common for lunches to last more than an hour and evening meals to stretch well past the late night news.
In such countries, food is enjoyed, relished, looked forward to, and savoured. It is not mere fuel, but binds people together through shared mealtimes, as memories are made over the breaking of bread and drinking of wine. It is not surprising that the Americans trump us on the fat scale, since they have an even worse relationship with food than we do: Americans eat 1 in 5 meals in the car, and 25% of Americans eat fast food at least once a day. When the respect for food is so low, it is no wonder that eating has become a brainless activity to be carried out without others, without care, and without thought.
Secondly, the issue of obesity is certainly not an issue of education or information gaps. Any toddler knows that peas are healthier than pizza. It’s not about cost either: peas will always be cheaper than pizza any day. The facts about food are plain. People could eat healthily if they wanted to.
But people don’t want to. Obesity is a somewhat inevitable result of living without much hope for your future. Only someone who realises that their life might get better would be willing to slim down to live for it. People must have something worth slimming for, and for many (those without homes or jobs) that thing simply isn’t apparent to them.
So, will we live in a fatty future, or is there a possibility that we might shed the pounds nationwide? Boris Johnson needs to do less nannying and more inspiring. It is good that he is taking his own weight-loss regime so seriously, but why doesn’t he do more to share his experience with the public? James Forsyth of The Spectator has suggested the idea of national “weigh-ins with Boris”, and I think that’s a terrific idea. There could even be tax breaks for those who lose more than the PM in a month…
Something needs to be done about Britain’s food culture as a whole. It’s a deeply ingrained problem, so obviously the solution won’t be a quick-fix. It’s about encouraging families to eat together and about parents teaching their children how to buy, prepare and cook healthy food. Perhaps the government could end its drive for more 2 to 3 year olds to be abandoned in state funded day-orphanages, and instead encourage parents to spend more time at home with the children they’ve chosen to raise?
We, the fat, need bigger incentives than a slight raise in the cost of our next McDonald’s. We need to be given the opportunity to see the benefits of eating healthily and, importantly, together. The road to becoming a thinner nation will not be easy. With the current direction of travel, I predict that the success rates will be minimal.
The ideas represented in this article are not reflective of the values held by UCL Conservatives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely representative of the author.