First: more than 80 per cent of the UK population will be overweight or obese by 2060, at a cost to our economy of £142 billion a year. Secondly: Britain is in the grip of an “early onset cancer epidemic”, with rates of colon, kidney and liver cancer shooting up among 20 to 40-year olds. The most likely cause, say researchers, is our increased intake of junk food. Thirdly: women with type 2 diabetes – a disease chiefly caused by poor diet – die on average five years earlier than those without the condition. Men with type 2 diabetes lose four and a half years of life.
Do you find these statistics frightening? I suspect not. You know you must be shocked, but it’s so boring, all this talk about obesity. It’s been going on forever, and yet nothing seems to change. And anyway, what does it matter how you feel about it?
A lot, actually. The fact that diet-related disease has become such a huge, intractable problem in this country is partly because of our feelings – or lack thereof. We feel boredom, statistical snow-blindness and a kind of instinctive recoil into what we believe to be “common sense” solutions. Politicians – being humans themselves, and minutely attuned to the public mood – then act, or fail to act, accordingly.
One reason for our lack of panic is that the plague of dietary ill-health has crept up on us gradually. Systems scientists call this the “boiled frog” trap: if the water heats up slowly enough, the frog doesn’t realise it is being boiled alive. It has taken 70 years for modern farming and manufacturing techniques to transform our food environment.
Globally, we now produce around 50 per cent more calories than we need per head, mostly in the form of refined carbohydrates, fat and sugar. We find these ingredients are irresistible: the human appetite evolved when food was scarce, so we are programmed to gorge on high-calorie treats. Around 80 per cent of the processed food now sold in the UK is high in fat, salt and sugar. Such are the laws of supply and demand.
Yet the way we think about food and weight has barely changed since the Spartan 1950s. Most people in this country, not least the 60 per cent who are themselves overweight, think the solution is obvious: education and willpower. The Government should provide information on healthy eating and exercise, and leave the rest to the individual.
This “feels” true. Each of us has a body, after all. We know that it grows and shrinks depending on what we eat. Extrapolating from personal experience, we feel a rush of impatience at the idea of blaming “the system” for our national weight problem. Surely it is up to us to take responsibility for it. Liz Truss’s threat to unravel what little exists of the Government’s anti-obesity strategy, including the sugar tax on fizzy drinks, is the political manifestation of this philosophy. Down with the nanny state, up with iron self-control!
But this fails to acknowledge, let alone explain, the scale of the problem. In 1950, less than one per cent of Britons were obese. Are we to believe that, since then, our population has suffered a collapse of willpower? Of course not. People haven’t changed; the food system has.
Would you be more likely to panic if you knew you were trapped in a system that is making your country sick and poor? I do hope so. Because until we start to feel the fear, nothing will change.