Fat Fiction Fat, lies and measuring tape

16Nov/104

Great news: KFC write UK obesity strategy

Ronald and the Colonel have a got a big job...

At long last, the newish UK Minister for Health, Andrew Lansley, decided to ask the big food manufacturers and restaurants for their advice on obesity policy. And while the Colonel and Ronald McDonald sketch out their own finger-licking strategy which will doubtlessly involve some variant of a McDirtbox in a family-sized bucket, I can’t help feeling this was the best possible result.

But... but…. But… he must be in bed with the big industries, and they don’t care about our health!

Yeah, I know, I know. And only two months ago, Lansley was laying the boot into chef Jamie Oliver for his tireless campaign to improve school meals. Not only that, he reputedly enjoys beating kittens with ministerial briefing boxes until they squeal the national anthem. Maybe. But even so, it’s still possibly the best outcome we could expect in the UK.

The problem

Right, let’s get this clear from the off. Obesity is caused by eating too much sugar and white flour, which has been driven by the relentless Government messages to eat less saturated fat in the 1970s. We did that and obediently swapped our butter for margarine, chicken thighs for skinless breasts and sought out the lowest fat yoghurts that man could make without them not actually physically existing in the pot. Unfortunately the net effect of this was that we ended up eating a ton more sugar and processed wheat-based stuff, and heart disease went up rather than down. Oh, and this advice turned us into one of the fattest nations in the world. Oops.

It’s everything to do with nutrients. If you don’t have enough nutrients you get hungry. If your body lacks nutrients  (white sugar and white flour strips nutrients), you get more and more hungry. You overeat. You cannot metabolise fat. You get fat.

And how about the junk food then? Is that off the hook? No, because as we all know if you eat processed burgers and chips all day you also get chubsome. Not because beef and potatoes are intrinsically bad you understand. But because the processing of foods strips the very nutrients which your body needs to function properly. Combine that with some white flour in the bun which will take out some of your nutrients that you’re diligently stuffing your face with, and you end up eating on and on and on. You’ll eat until you get just enough to function. Unfortunately, in doing so you’ve eaten enough fuel to take you to the Highlands and back on foot, while carrying the man you served you, but because of your lack of nutrients you don’t have the metabolic keys to the ignition that allows you to burn it off. So you have yourself a fat man. Or woman. *

I’ll help! Don’t worry!

By managing to misunderstand the problem, Governments make things far worse than they need to be. It seems like the more medical qualifications their advisers have, the worse their advice. So, before everyone pelts the new  government for basing their obesity strategy around a Big Whopper, let’s have a look at a their predecessors.

The Labour Government

Like the well-meaning auntie who rushes to take the motorcycle helmet off the twitching body on the ground, Labour with the best of intentions have turned a bad situation into a life-threatening one. They presumed that because the population was starting to resemble a crowded box of muffins, that they should just first re-examine the problem. Sensible idea, so what did they come up with?

They commissioned the world’s biggest obesity study ever back in 2007, the Foresight Report. Medical advisers, industry, policy wonks, they all tirelessly slaved over the mountains of paperwork while the world waited with baited breath. What would they come up with? Let me present to you the cornerstone of their work, the obesity system map …

Oh good grief.

Erm, what is that?

It may, to the uninitiated, resemble a bowl of spaghetti . Just to think, they were SO close. Just a bit of lateral thinking… spaghetti… made with wheat.. I wonder why the correlation between wheat and obesity is so strong… and they might have come up with something sensible.

But nope, that was it. From that shaky start, they then created an unfathomable campaign based around stick men called Change4Life which resembles the early days of Morph, if Morph was a crack-addled idiot, with nuggets of advice including:

-          “Have a smaller plate.” Or better still, wire your jaws together and eat through a straw.

-          “Take off the chicken skin to enjoy a ‘healthier chicken’”.  A skinless chicken is not healthier. Especially if it’s still alive.

-          “Focus on your food, swap the TV for the table.” Presumably in case the gravy spills down the back of the air vents. A Noel’s Swap Shop fail.

-          “Look out for the traffic lights”. Advice for those eating on the move?

It’s not all bad advice of course. Eat vegetables. Have whole grain. Move around a bit, which is helpfully described as “Reduce time sitting down”. But ultimately, it doesn’t address the core problem because they haven’t understood it.

The Coalition Government

A new Government, a new start. But it didn’t take Andrew Lansley, our Secretary of State for Health long before he turned in the opposite direction to the Labour Government, and told everyone that chef Jamie Oliver’s ‘controversial’ approach of improving school meals by ‘controversially’ improving the actual meals doesn’t actually work because the kids run to the newsagent and snort Mars bars in their lunchbreak instead of dining on the wholesome grass-fed sirloin steak laid out for them in their canteen.

Instead, Lansley talks in nebulous terms about behaviour modification and behaviour change having clearly spent a lonely Saturday night reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Nudge.

So ultimately it was no surprise that he’s just invited the big brands around the table to help write his obesity strategy. After all, the masters of behavior manipulation are the biggest retailers in the world, and if you can get into the food chain and change the foods themselves, all the better. And yet ironically, that is exactly what Oliver spent the last upteen years doing in schools. He replaced the crap food with healthy nutritious food and encouraged people to cook. How is that not a good thing?

But none-the-less, bringing in the food giants is still the best result we can hope for. Why? Because while the Government, regardless of their political persuasion, still misunderstand the problem - which is that obesity is not a problem of gluttony, fat, calories or laziness - then they’ll continually dish out the wrong advice and make things worse. By inviting the big brands around the table, we can be sure that precisely nothing will change. Isn’t that better than making it worse?

Photo  from Arturo de Albornoz

* Glib summaries I know. For the PubMed references and explanations of why this is the case, see some of the other posts…

Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I remember the first time I saw the obesity system map…

    a really interesting take on the policy writing, great article. For those of us working with young poeple and their health it’s an uphill struggle without government minsters belittling those who try to help. We keep battling on though!

    • Thanks CitizenR! It’s mind-boggling isn’t it. Tell me, as someone who actually does the job rather than me with my armchair musing, what would you get government to do? If Lansley relented on his McPolicies, which I think it’s fair to say he won’t, what would you get him to change?

  2. Ha! i can answer that one I work at an obesity clinic in Manchester and i see it every day. it’s the parents feeding their kids the crap that’s the problem we’re just a stiicking plaster. i don’t think gov makes any difference at all

    • Hello Jen, thanks for dropping by. True, parents definitely have a huge role to play, but what hope have the kids got if their parents can’t get it right?


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