Getting Political…

So, having just watched an episode of The Men Who Made Us Fat on BBC iPlayer, I feel somewhat compelled to make my first post in a while (even though I have a bunch of food posts I should really write-up first!) because I think it throws up some interesting points.

Having grown up with a mum who has been a Slimming World consultant for more than half of my life, probably gives me a skewed perspective on general knowledge about healthy eating that most people have. Certainly I know that the level of knowledge (no matter how much I might not put that into practice) that I have is not necessarily common and I even have a fair amount of awareness that most nutritionists would not consider the Slimming World plan to be the pinnacle of healthy eating – unlimited red meat and unlimited pasta and rice probably wouldn’t feature too much in a nutritionists’ perfect diet!

I absolutely agree with the main argument of the show: that the food industry should be regulated to prevent products filled with sugar/fat/calories etc from being marketed as health foods (incidentally, I may not be as surprised as some about the huge numbers of calories in shop-bought sandwiches, but the actual comparison of a Pret salad containing more calories than a Big Mac surprised me too!) I think this is even more important since we live in a society where healthy eating isn’t properly taught in schools – if at all – and where the average consumer wouldn’t know what to look for in a ‘complex food’ such as a ready meal or a breakfast cereal in terms of finding out calorie, sugar or fat content in relation to GDA. It’s all too easy for supermarkets and food companies to market food as healthy or organic and have people buy it without thinking.

But, although I think these things are important, I think it kind of takes away from the fundamental thing about obesity that I’m not sure people really want to say: fat people are, on the whole, fat because they eat too much of the wrong foods. I am fat because I eat too much junk food. It’s not a big secret!

Somebody who buys into the food industries marketing about healthy foods may well end up overweight, but assuming the sort of person who would spend £4+ on a box of cereal marketed as healthy would also probably have a relatively high intake of fresh fruit, veg, meat and fish (which I think is true – though a generalisation, I realise), that person is probably not going to end up so fat that they’re clinically obese and putting strain on the NHS.

I feel as though putting so much emphasis on the necessities of regulating the food industry takes responsibility away from individuals who decide what they’re going to eat. Ultimately, we live in a free society where, within the constraints of our income, we buy and eat whatever we want to. Which is great. But it also means it’s dangerous to put such emphasis on food regulation without also emphasising education about healthy eating, about cooking and about finding good deals to help to ensure healthy eating on a tight budget (which I think is more of a problem than actual knowledge about the calorie content of a Pret salad).

If we’re going to get really radical about regulating the food industry, I think traffic lights on food packets is quite frankly pathetic. Considering the scale of the problem, I don’t see how anybody who really thinks legislating to prevent the food industry from being a bunch of Machiavellian gits is the way to go, could be satisfied with the concept of traffic lights. If we’re going to go down the route of a nanny state then is there really a better option than to remove tax from actual healthy whole foods (pasta/rice/fruit/veg/meat/fish) and to add that tax onto junk food and ban supermarkets from putting junk foods on offer? If you’re struggling to feed yourself and/or your family, how can you justify not making the most of supermarket offers on frozen junk food, sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks? So, the only way, that I can see, for legislation to make a difference to obesity problems in this country is to take a really radical approach and stick two fingers up at the super-powerful industry that is prepared to market Sunny D as a health food…!

Ooh, so that got quite radical in the end there! And I completely understand that in the real world, the food industry would probably collapse under that legislation and thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of jobs would be lost – which I reckon is pretty counter productive to the whole point of what I’m saying! But I’m just saying, that if education doesn’t improve and people remain unwilling to take individual responsibility for their weight problems, what else is there to be done?

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2 thoughts on “Getting Political…

  1. Have just come across your blog, having followed a link posted in your Mum’s online SW group…

    I work in a support centre in Leeds for people who live on low incomes (we see a lot of migrants, people on the dole, people too ill to work, etc)…….I’d say that the majority of people I see (both English and from abroad) would struggle to read and make sense of a business letter, and would not be able to write one ie English levels well below GCSE. Likewise Maths. I live in Mixenden (run down council estate – Halifax’s dumping ground for people they don’t want to home elsewhere) and I’d say that many of the people who live in that area have similar levels of literacy/numeracy to those of my clients in Leeds.

    It’s quite suprising just how many people manage to leave school with minimal literacy and numeracy levels.

    I’d like to see clearer and standardised labelling on foods – detailed breakdown of nutritional content, calories etc………but I think there is also a role for a very simple ‘traffic light’ system (can we have both, please, on foods!) which makes it easy for someone with minimal literacy to make a healthy choice when buying food.

    And I’d like to see Farm Foods and similar organisations, who sell very cheap ready meals that are full of rubbish have VAT added onto their ‘food’ …… people on low incomes often have a very poor diet and corresponding levels of obesity – partly because it can actually be cheaper to buy Farm Foods cardboard ‘meals’ (highly flavoured, low nutrients) than it is to buy and cook from raw ingredients. There is also the problem that increasing numbers of people do not actually know how to cook or lack confidence with cooking.

    So yes, more education is needed too.

    1. I’ve been away from this blog from a while, so I only just noticed your (now rather old!) comment. I had to go back and re-read my post as well, to actually see what I was saying! Re traffic lights, I think I mostly just felt it didn’t go far enough. It’s not a bad place to start but it needs to be in conjunction with more regulation, if that’s the route we’re saying tackling the problem should go down. I can certainly understand what you’re saying about the way in which a simple system, like the traffic lights, might make things easier for many people to work out good/bad ‘complex’ foods.

      I think it ultimately has to come down to education – a taxation system like the one I talked about in my post is unlikely in the face of the power of the food industry – so the only other option is to make food technology (or something similar) mandatory throughout compulsory education and have it actually focus on cooking healthy foods and making the right choices. I remember talking to someone involved in running a soup kitchen who said there had been all of these well-meaning people who had donated foods to a local food bank like tinned chickpeas, lentils, etc. which then were ignored by the patrons of the food bank because, if they knew what the foods were, they certainly didn’t know how to cook with them. Which, I think sort of does a lot to sum up the problems we’re facing right now.

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