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A portion of toxic nonsense

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

Topics Politics

Remember the overweight kid who got picked on at school? We are all fat boys now, and they are coming to get us.

One American war that Europe is keen to sign up to is the War on Fat. Last week the EU found time to stage a weighty summit where experts from something called the International Obesity Taskforce gave government ministers warning that the ‘epidemic’ of obesity -which could apparently soon affect three quarters of Britons -is becoming the health problem of the century. They called on governments to treat the junk food industry the same as tobacco, with new regulations and bans on advertising.

A place where there does seem to have been a build-up of fat is between these people’s ears. People in the developed world are now healthier than at any time in human history. We lead longer, healthier lives than our ancestors; our children are no longer massacred by hunger or disease. And contrary to all the junk propaganda, the food we eat today is more nutritious and less contaminated than ever before. If you want to see some ‘toxic additives’, look at the lead, copper sulphate, strychnine and other wholesome ingredients found in much of Victorian England’s food.

One epidemic we do face today is the rash of public health professionals, constantly searching for the next big thing against which to launch a crusade. Having done all that they can to stop people smoking, they move on to police our eating and drinking habits. These experts are keen to expose how big business has ‘vested interests’ in selling our children junk food. They are less keen to admit their own vested interest in heightening public anxieties, as major stakeholders in the health scare industry.

True, many of us are getting fatter. But the notion of a dangerous epidemic rests on a definition of obesity that has been stretched further than an outsize elasticated waistband. The Body Mass Index -bible of the anti-obesity movement – sets such stringent standards of normality that it is a wonder anybody bar Geri Halliwell is not considered medically overweight.

The link between diet and health is also far less clear-cut than many campaigners claim. Among all the millions of statistics that are hurled back and forth in the food fight, one always sticks in my mind: if I were to forgo meat and cheese for life, and eat plenty of beans and pulses, I might just prolong my melancholy and possibly flatulent existence by a couple of months. Pass the beef and beer, please.

Behind the medical mask, what the public health zealots really seem to object to is any lifestyle that involves risk, individual choice or the pursuit of personal pleasure. As the Australian Deborah Lupton writes, ‘Healthiness has replaced Godliness as a yardstick of proper living’. The new religion retains most of the old sins -gluttony, lust -but without even the promise of eternal salvation.

If there are problems with the way that people, especially children, eat today, it is not a health issue at all but a social one, to do with the changed ways that we see ourselves and relate to others. The much discussed decline of the family meal is a case in point. Seen in this light, the happy family outing to McDonald’s looks like a healthier example of social interaction. But in any case, these things are not susceptible to intervention by governments, doctors, or even the International Obesity Taskforce. The outcome of our unhealthy obsession with food can only be to create a world of eating disorders.

With its moralistic advice about how we should live and raise our children, the anti-obesity crusade is a part of what the author and GP Michael Fitzpatrick calls ‘the tyranny of health’. Some schools with ‘healthy eating’ policies already bar children from bringing crisps in their lunch box. Perhaps we will soon see workplaces equate eating with smoking, so that employees have to huddle guiltily outside on the pavement to share a Kit-Kat. If the new orthodoxy is ‘you are what you eat’, it appears that they want us to live like pure organic vegetables rather than dirty little burgers.

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Topics Politics

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