The report says that our modern, ‘obesogenic’ environment is very bad for us. We eat more energy-dense foods while having less and less need to expend this extra energy because we use mechanised transport and have sedentary lives. While ‘personal responsibility plays a crucial part in weight gain’, the reports suggests that we will need a society-wide response to the problem if we are not all to become great mounds of lard suffering from multiple chronic illnesses and facing an early grave.
As the chairman of the National Obesity Forum, Dr Colin Waine, told BBC News on Monday, the effects of the obesity crisis ‘will hit us much earlier than climate change’. Waine warned: ‘We are now in a situation where levels of childhood obesity will lead to the first cut in life expectancy for 200 years. These children are likely to die before their parents.’ (3)
Things are looking bleak, it would seem. But like a portion of fries, we should take these claims with a pinch of salt.
Firstly, the good news: while all these doom and gloom predictions are flying about, the reality is that we are living longer, healthier lives than before. Figures from the UK Office for National Statistics suggest that between 1981 and 2004, life expectancy rose for men from 70.8 years to 76.6 years, while for women the rise was from 76.8 years to 81 years (4).
As the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee noted in 2005: ‘Life expectancy in the UK and other developed countries continues to increase by about two years per decade.’ (5) Given that people most often start families in their twenties and thirties, such figures suggest that each generation will live between four and six years longer than the previous one, all other things being equal. Even if obesity slowed that progress down, it is unlikely to reverse it. Statements like those from the National Obesity Forum are simply alarmist.
One of the main reasons for this success is our increasing ability to tackle the kinds of chronic diseases that are widely associated with obesity. According to the British Heart Foundation’s Heartstats website: ‘Death rates from cardio-vascular disease (CVD) have been falling in the UK since the early 1970s… For people under 65 years, they have fallen by 46 per cent in the last 10 years.’ (6) According to Cancer Research UK’s CancerStats pages, overall mortality rates for cancer fell by 17 per cent between 1976 and 2005, despite the fact that incidence has been rising, mainly as a result of people living long enough to develop cancers (7).
Secondly, the basis on which the government’s Foresight report has been produced is questionable. The authors assume that obesity is caused by an imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended. But as the Australian writers Michael Gard and Jan Wright point out, researchers have struggled to confirm this thesis. It might be true - but studies looking for an increase in calories consumed have tended to find that we’re actually eating less than in the past, while studies looking to confirm we take less exercise have also been inconclusive. Yes, it’s true we have many labour-saving devices and transport options now - but there are also many more options for physical activity, too. Women, in particular, would have been strongly discouraged from taking part in sport 50 years ago but now are as likely to be active as men.
Nor has the world of work changed as much people assume. In the past, only a quite small proportion of the population spent their days as miners or road diggers - most people had sedentary jobs back then, too. The kinds of jobs we do may have changed, but the energy involved may not. There is little reason to assume that manning a station on a production line, for example, was any more energetic than filling shelves in a supermarket or flipping burgers. Oh, and people may not have noticed, but despite all their physical activity, poor manual labourers have always tended to die at a younger age than double-chinned, deskbound bank managers.
Our scepticism should be further increased by the fact that the forecasts in the report are based on computer models. Such models have a laughable track record in relation to major health problems in the UK. Remember when millions of people were going to die from AIDS? Or when hundreds of thousands were going to die from variant-Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (vCJD)? In truth, the numbers of deaths were a fraction of those predicted by the models. We should be very wary of taking models seriously in such circumstances.
Thirdly, there is the assumption that ‘obesity equals disease’. But on closer inspection, people in the ‘overweight’ or even the ‘mildly obese’ categories have broadly similar health outcomes to people in the ‘ideal’ weight range. And what are all these fat people going to be treated for? It would appear that cases of type-2 diabetes will rise, but the major diseases said to be caused by obesity are cardio-vascular disease and cancer: the things that are already killing most people, but for which mortality rates have been falling. The worst-case scenario is that, if we become obese, these diseases might get us a little bit quicker than they would have done anyway. How will that put an extra strain on health services?
Finally, the report is pretty damning in one respect: despite suggesting that there is a need for a national, we’re-in-this-together approach to tackling the problem of obesity and exercise, there is no proof whatsoever that government intervention in these areas has a positive effect – a fact that the report admits. Today, there is ubiquitous advice to ‘eat healthily’ or ‘be more active’. There is pressure from government, the media and society generally to get thin and get moving, with the message that being fat is going to kill you. And yet in Britain, as in many other countries around the world, people are still getting fatter.
If government intervention doesn’t work, then the policies that the UK government is now hinting that it will implement - from more weighing of schoolkids and examinations of their body mass index, to greater labelling of foods and banning ‘trans’ fats – are highly unlikely to transform Britain into a thin and healthy nation. They may well, however, make chubby schoolchildren feel stigmatised and guilty as they are weighed in the classroom, and ruin the joys of food for the rest of us.
In a sense, it doesn’t matter if the latest government campaign doesn’t make us all super-healthy – because the recurring panic about obesity doesn’t really have anything to do with how much we weigh. Instead, what the Foresight report shows is that there is a template today for social panics. The comparison between obesity and climate change is striking: fears about both of these phenomena spring from the same source, a general sense of anxiety, and both the alleged dangers of obesity and climate change are increasingly framed in a similar way. So like reports on climate change, the Foresight report started out with a literature review; then it created ‘scenarios’ about how the world might change over the next few decades; finally computer models were employed to predict how the disaster might unfold. We’re even assured that the report is a product of the work of ‘250 scientists’ - looking uncannily like a poor man’s version of the ‘2,500 scientists’ involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This is a straight rip-off of the IPCC method of working, with the aim of acquiring the kudos that the recent Nobel Peace Prize-winning organisation has won in recent years.
There are other similarities between the fat and climate panics. According to anti-obesity campaigners, today’s spread of flab highlights the essential problem of human greed, even more than global warming does. We want too much - and it’s going to come back to haunt us in the future. We must learn to change our ways and the government will jolly well tell us how to do so if we don’t make the necessary changes by ourselves. This fearful attitude towards future disaster, a disaster we have apparently brought upon ourselves, seems to float free of any particular issue. Just fill in the gaps with obesity/climate change/bird flu/whatever and you have a ready-made panic, complete with independent, neutral, evidence-based, scientific authority, in response to which Something Must Be Done - usually by the government, because we feckless individuals are too weak to do it ourselves.
A more useful approach to social problems would be to realise that society will face challenges of all sorts in the coming years. Through science, technology and innovation, we have been able not only to solve the immediate problems we face, but also to take society forward in the process. What is evident from the seemingly endless series of panics about the future is that society has lost confidence in its ability to solve problems. This gives rise to a view of the future as being filled with disease and destruction; the future is apparently something we must guard against, by making changes to our behaviour, rather than something we mould through positive human action.
As such, we cannot stop the obesity panic by trying to lose weight, nor allay fears about global warming by emitting less carbon. We can only solve the problem of these recurring panics by regaining confidence in our ability to shape the world rather than just our waistlines.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. He is speaking at the sessions Recycling is a waste of time and Will ethical shopping save the world? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.
(1) Obesity is as serious a threat as climate change, says minister, Independent, 14 October 2007
(2) Foresight report: key messages
(3) Obesity ‘as bad as climate risk’, BBC News, 14 October 2007
(4) Obesity ‘as bad as climate risk’, BBC News, 14 October 2007
(5) House of Lords - Science and Technology - First Report, 2005
(6) Trends in death rates, Heartstats
(7) Trends in UK cancer mortality statistics, Cancer Research UK