Who made Jamie Oliver the Emperor of Eating?
The celebrity chef now has such a fattened sense of self-importance that he thinks he has the right to lecture elected politicians.
‘We don’t want bullshit about the big society. We want a strategy to stop Britain being the fifth most unhealthy country in the world. The most unhealthy country in Europe. This is the first generation of kids expected to live not as long as their parents. Tell me, Mr Gove, Mr Lansley, how you plan to change that? Two out of five kids are obese. What is in your arsenal? The fact is, they are doing nothing…’
Sunday’s Observer featured this classic Jamie Oliver recipe: moralistic grandstanding, blatant panicmongering based on dubious ‘facts’ and lecturing not only us poor plebs but various secretaries of state, too. If I were a senior elected politician like Michael Gove or Andrew Lansley, I’d be asking St Jamie a more pertinent question: who the fuck are you?
There is something very unhealthy about the way that celebrities like Oliver and special-interest groups and campaigns see their purpose: to determine government policy and to complain loudly when their view of policy isn’t immediately implemented, whether it’s about food, fags, booze or many other lifestyle issues. And just as Oliver and others are dismissive of politicians, so they are equally dismissive of the views of those who elect politicians. In Oliver’s case, that means despairing at the idea that the majority of the population can be trusted to figure out what is the most appropriate thing to eat.
Let’s start with a bit of analysis of the above paragraph from Oliver. Apparently, the UK is the ‘fifth most unhealthy country in the world’ and the ‘most unhealthy country in Europe’. What the hell does that mean? One way of looking at the problem might be to look at life expectancies. This league table, based on UN sources, puts the UK in joint twentieth place in the world with Germany with a life expectancy of 79.4 years. Moreover, there’s only a year or two’s difference between almost all the major Western European countries. More recent figures from the CIA World Factbook paint a similar picture, except that life expectancy in the UK has now passed 80 years of age - and just keeps on rising.
These figures suggest that the idea that, on average, children will die at a younger age than their parents is ludicrously pessimistic. It doesn’t even make sense in the context of an obesity ‘epidemic’. In fact, according to the Health Survey for England (HSE), in 2010 ‘17 per cent of boys and 15 per cent of girls aged two-to-15 years were classed as obese, and 31 per cent of boys and 29 per cent of girls were classed as either overweight or obese’. How does that equate to ‘two in five’ (that is, 40 per cent of children) being obese? In reality, obesity rates are less than half what Oliver claims.
Childhood obesity rates are no longer climbing and may well be falling. So, the HSE report adds, fairly cautiously: ‘The lack of significant change in the last three to four years in the proportion that were obese suggests that the trend in obesity now appears to be flattening out.’
That said, just because a child is plump does not mean that he or she is ‘unhealthy’. At most, all we can say is that chubby children, on average, are a little bit more likely to suffer from certain chronic conditions than slimmer children. But, in reality, the vast majority of British children - who have the good fortune to live in a relatively prosperous country, get plenty to eat and enjoy pretty good healthcare - are healthy, no matter how fat or slim they are.
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This broad picture of good news, however, won’t stop Jamie from pontificating that Something Must Be Done. In this case, he is railing at the idea that academy schools, which have a degree of autonomy about how they are run and what is taught, will also be exempt from national school food standards. ‘This mantra that we are not going to tell schools what to do just isn’t good enough in the midst of the biggest fucking obesity epidemic ever. The public health of five million children shouldn’t be left to luck or chance…’ Apparently, then, children’s food can’t simply be left to school-governing bodies (or parents) to work out, but must be imposed with an iron fist from the centre - and in accordance with the ideas of Jamie and his health-crusading mates.
This is truly the tail wagging the dog. Nor is Oliver alone. Indeed, if there’s one profession that has an even more inflated sense of self-importance than celebrity chefs, it is doctors. So, a week earlier in the Guardian, cardiologist Aseem Malhotra followed the Jamie Oliver recipe to a tee, building hysterical claims upon dubious evidence. Malhotra declared that ‘diet-related diseases are responsible for 35million deaths worldwide’ (not true - that’s the estimated figure for all deaths from non-communicable diseases, not just diet-related ones). He then sweetened the mix with the views of melodramatic anti-sugar campaigner Robert Lustig, who believes that sugar is toxic and addictive. The conclusion: what is required is the ‘demonisation of junk food’ and an assault on the kind of big food companies now sponsoring the Olympic Games. Apparently, we are all so stupid that we are bound to think that McDonald’s or Coca-Cola have become purveyors of health food simply because they sponsor a major sporting event.
Meanwhile, other members of Malhotra’s profession with equally megalomaniac pretensions have banded together to start their own war on obesity. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has promised a kind of medical-profession version of Marvel movie Avengers Assemble in an all-out assault on fatness and fast-food companies.
After a period of ‘research’ - that is, putting together a one-sided dossier of claims about obesity - the campaign will begin in earnest. Professor Sir Neil Douglas, chair of the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges, told the BBC: ‘This won’t be just another report that sits on the shelf and gathers dust. It will form the bedrock of our ongoing campaigning activity.’ In other words, this bunch of self-appointed guardians of the nation’s health are going to do everything in their power to lambast the government into submission and impose regulations on what we eat. Terrific.
In this worldview, our choices about what to eat are not a complex balancing of cost, taste, nutrition, personal preference and so forth. No, we are all the victims of an ‘obesogenic’ environment. The only solution is to have our food choices manipulated for our own good according to the wisdom of campaigners, with the force of the law or with the moralistic demand that we ‘think of the children’.
Our waistlines may or may not be expanding, but the poisonous influence of egotistical chefs and jumped-up scalpel monkeys on our ever more isolated political class certainly is. In the process, important principles related to democracy and personal autonomy are being dumped. What’s healthy about that?
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His new book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.