Fat Fiction Fat, lies and measuring tape


Honesty is the best policy

Lansley on a mission for truth

When’s the last time you were properly patronised? I mean really patronised in a fully condescending fashion, as if you were some kind of dribbling village idiot that sits at home playing with fireworks and cans of petrol? It’s been a while for me, but someone stepped up to the job with real talent – none other than the Chief Medical Officer for the UK presenting the new obesity strategy. I say presenting – I really mean telling off the UK for being a bunch of greedy feckless chubsters. If you’ve not seen it, cop a load of Dame Sally Davies endearing herself to the country.

The new obesity strategy is basically “Eat less”, which as everyone knows is just two words short of a full and complete strategy. Add “processed carbs” and you’ve pretty much nailed it. But instead it appears that Beaker from the Muppets has taken over the strategy unit at the Department of Health and advised us all to eat 10% less calories per day on average. Uh huh. That’s 16 roasted peanuts less per day in case you’re wondering. Against the latest figures, men should eat 2605 calories per day, and women 2079 per day. Fair enough, right? Well, I hate to be a stickler for details, but if we’re going to go all sciencey with the advice, let’s at least get it right.

Because ingestion doesn’t equal absorption, we’ll need to mandate a colonoscopy to check the state of everyone’s gastrointestinal tract in the country, combined with gut flora tests to determine how many calories each individual can extract out of similar meals, because otherwise a calorie count is meaningless.

Then of course, if we’re really going to measure that 10% properly, the human body is an open system, so you’ll have to monitor your movement accurately with some kind of accelerometer. And then don’t forget we need to also monitor heat dissipation too to get a complete picture. I’m guessing we can use some kind of skin sensor that’ll extrapolate a small area of skin to calculate total heat dispersion over time. All of that data is going to need some crunching, so maybe then you can give us all some kind of online website to analyse it all right?

Then, and only then, we can have sensible discussions about calories in and calories out, which is after all what you’re advising. Alternatively, you could just tell people the truth.

Telling porkies

Dame Davies talks about how the UK needs to be more honest with itself about how much they eat. Honesty works both ways of course, so maybe it’s about time she – or rather Andrew Lansley, the health secretary - admitted why they failed to mention it’s not about how much you eat, it’s what you eat.

A family friend slipped into a diabetic coma two weeks ago because of what he ate. Volume doesn’t come into it.

The elephant in the room is blindly obvious to nearly everyone. In fact the entire strategy (PDF available here for the insomniacs) fails to mention the actual cause of obesity – processed carbs.

And we all know why they avoid it – it’s a thorny issue because by admitting it, it opens up the legislation debate / nanny state / free market intervention / political can of worms. But I thought they wanted honesty so let’s fill in the gaps.

A food manufacturer’s job is to maximise profit, and while it’s all very well to appeal to their common decency to produce food stuffs that won’t turn us into oompa loompas, the reality is it’s one of the most competitive and cutthroat industries in the world. When consumer demand cheap products, bulking up with processed grains and seed oil is the most sensible strategy. When consumers demand taste, adding sugar is the simplest way of meeting their needs. When consumers demand health – well that’s when change happens.

Demonising food manufacturers is pointless. The ridiculous Danish fat tax even worse (if the Danes didn’t have an obesity problem before, they will now). The Government is looking to change the demand of the consumers, which is laudable, but you can only do that if you level with people first and tell them what’s really driving obesity, surely?

Instead, here’s the official line, in Lansley’s own words:

“Overweight and obesity are a direct consequence of eating and drinking more calories and using up too few… Increasing physical activity is important but, for most of us who are overweight and obese, eating and drinking less is key to weight loss.

I don’t think anyone thought obesity was a magic hoovering up of energy from the atmosphere but thanks anyway Lansley for clearing that up. Maybe next week you can come up with an obesity strategy?

PS apologies for the long time between posts  and the comments not working properly. Work and some WordPress palaver- should be sorted on both fronts now.

Comments (4) Trackbacks (2)
  1. Ha ha, yes he does look like Beaker from the Muppets! I agree about the patronising stuff. Sadly people ARE eating less and still not losing weight. How can that be? I guess they must be telling fibs (sarcasm!).

    • I wasn’t saying he looked like Beaker, but feel free to run with it!
      The thing about eating less I always thought was true, but I read through a lot of Guyenet it looks fairly contentious – I’m going to take a proper look next week

  2. It really is incredible that they still don’t realise, isn’t it. I spent quite a lot of time in the late 1990s trying to tell the Blair government about processed carbs. I got absolutely nowhere. Blair was obsessed with the idea that biotech and genetics were going to solve everything.

    Remember the Jamie Oliver series on school food? Did you see all the white flour and white rice in the school kitchens? Blair endorsed Oliver, and Oliver endorsed processed carbs.

    BTW, it can’t have been because I’m not a scientist that Blair refused to listen to me. I AM a scientist.

    • Hi Jane, I remember your story.
      Labour were equally as shabby and spent more money in the process on obesity strategies, but I think you’re off the mark with Oliver. Reducing sugar, introducing real, nutritious food in schools – all of that is a good thing. The odd slice of bread isn’t going to negate that. Crucially, he actually did something about it.
      I agree the white flour (though not rice) issue is real; in years to come people will wonder what the hell we were doing feeding the bran to our pets and the shit to ourselves. But until it’s unequivocally proven it doesn’t entirely surprise me that your voice would have gone unheard. After all, for every scientist such as yourself, there’s probably a dozen others saying calories in calories out.
      It’s interesting about Blair – was that under John “oh fuck it’s health” Reid in the 90s? Would you have been better off targeting the ministers for health rather than the PM? Or J.O. by the sounds of it? The key to challenging mainstream views is in the approach. For eg, I read Taubes’s recent spouting off from a conference to medical professionals where he’s cringingly labelled them all as half-wits. Science is as much about relationships as business; his failure to recognise that has undone a lot of the huge progress he’s made.

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