The war on obesity is a war on the poor

The news that rich kids are as large as their poorer peers caused shockwaves only because the myth of the fat, feckless poor is so prevalent.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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‘It’s the poor wot gets the blame.’

That was a popular refrain during the First World War, but it could just as easily be a rousing chorus from the trenches of the War on Obesity. Today there is an assumption that behind every flabby child waddling down the road there are parents who are as thick as mince, with barely enough money to send their overweight offspring to the chip shop for their dinner on the way back from fetching mum and dad’s fags. However, two recent pieces of research give the lie to this sketch, suggesting that the middle classes are just as prone to eating crap food and having fat children as the poor.

Just over a week ago, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) published research which showed that the poor, far from having a nutrition-lite diet of fat and sugar, actually ate much the same kinds of foods as everyone else (1). In a detailed survey of the eating habits of 3,278 people from households in the most materially deprived sections of the population, the FSA found that the most significant differences in eating habits were related to age, not social class. Younger people, regardless of social class, tended to consume more low-fibre, high-fat, high-sugar and processed foods than older generations. Poor people were no more likely to be overweight or obese than the better-off.

Then, last Sunday, the UK Independent on Sunday declared that ‘the nation’s higher-paid working mothers bear much of the responsibility for the country’s ticking obesity time bomb, and not the poorer working-class families who are usually blamed.’ (2) Another study, carried out by University College London and Great Ormond Street Hospital, found that children growing up in households with incomes greater than £33,000 per year were more likely to be obese than those in homes with the lowest incomes. Apparently, middle-class households where the mother works are particularly affected: ‘Long hours of maternal employment, rather than lack of money, may impede young children’s access to healthy foods and physical activity.’

The news that middle-class kids get fat too shouldn’t be a shock to anyone. It became frontpage news over the past week only because the problem of obesity has, until now, been readily blamed on the ignorance and moral failings of the working classes; that these ‘middle classes get fat!’ findings have been treated as stunning is testament to the extent to which obesity has been associated with moral turpitude amongst the lower classes. And yet, at the same time as these latest studies seem to have exhonerated the poor, they have also found a new enemy in the War on Obesity: working mothers.

Women who hold down a job, run a home and raise children have got enough on their plates already. Now, apparently, they have to bear responsibility for their children’s ill-health, too. As Dr Colin Waine, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, told the Independent on Sunday: ‘I do not wish to condemn these women but I do think the priority has to be the health of the child and its continued health into adulthood. We are in danger of raising a generation of young people with a much shorter life expectancy than previous generations.’ (3) Unfortunately, Dr Waine sounds a bit like those people who say ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ No doubt he will assure us that some of his best friends are working mothers.

Whether being a working mother really is going to make your children fat or not (and we shouldn’t leap to conclusions on the basis on one study), the question really should be: does it matter? The fact is, the relationship between ill-health and obesity is a complicated one. It certainly appears to be the case that the very overweight have a lower life expectancy than those who are lighter. But whether this is strictly to do with how much fat they have round their waists is another matter. It is not only the amount of body fat they have that makes the very overweight different to slimmer individuals. For example, obese people tend to take less exercise and there’s good evidence that exercise (which in this case means walking regularly rather than running marathons) can offset most of the risks of heart disease, type-II diabetes and so on that are associated with being fat. Moreover, somebody who is capable of being really fat (most people wouldn’t get really fat even if they stuffed their faces) may have other physiological problems that increase their propensity for chronic diseases. But for the rest of us – from those of ‘ideal’ weight to the mildly obese – the risk of an early death is pretty much the same across the board.

Nor can we predict an individual’s adult health from his or her size as a child. As a thought-provoking new paper by the Australian academic Michael Gard bluntly notes, ‘no study in the history of medical science has ever established a causal link between childhood fatness and adult ill-health or premature death’ (4). So, why all the attention given to obesity in general, and childhood obesity in particular? It’s not as if obsessing about our weight has made us any happier (or thinner). For Gard, obesity has become a morality play for those who would like to intervene in our lives:

‘Unfortunately, many commentators talk about the war on obesity as a war between good and evil; good food versus bad food, wholesome physical activity versus evil technology; and responsible versus irresponsible parenting… If we then factor in the inconvenient fact that obesity research has not produced a “smoking gun” which implicates anyone in particular, the stage is set perfectly for protracted and unhelpful arguments about what research does or does not say about the causes of obesity.’ (5)

As the American commentator Paul Campos has noted, the best way to win the War on Obesity is to stop fighting it. But the War on the Poor will carry on regardless of the results of studies into eating habits – after all, it’s a war that’s been raging for well over a century and serves to confirm the innate superiority of those with a bob or two in their pockets. This extract from a popular English Victorian magazine could have been the product of many a modern-day hack: ‘The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact.’ (6)

Such an explicit statement of the idea that some people are simply of better ‘stock’ than others would be unacceptable today. Nonetheless, the same idea is implicit in the logic of modern thinking on poverty and obesity. Wealthy people who cook decent meals with fresh ingredients are seen as being morally superior – they care about their health and their children’s health, and they care for the planet, too. Poorer people, who apparently only eat microwaveable meals or pizzas biked to their homes during an episode of EastEnders, are looked upon as sinful and slothful – they are, in Jamie Oliver’s immortal words, ‘white trash’ and ‘tossers’ who allegedly care little for their own wellbeing or that of their families. Today, the sense of a divide between rich and poor is articulated most frequently through issues of health and diet.

The search for some form of moral superiority, rather than a real concern with health, is the driving force behind the authorities’ War on Obesity. That is why a campaign ostensibly against fatness can easily shift its attention from feckless ‘chavs’ to working mothers: because it is underpinned by moralistic judgements about our lifestyle choices rather than hard scientific facts about our eating habits. First ‘white trash’ families and now mums who dare to work – the War on Obesity is a war against those who make the ‘wrong’ choices, who refuse to play by the rules laid down by the new elite, and who instead do things their own way. In this sense, the demand that we ‘eat healthily’ and have the correct body shape (whatever that might be) is at root a demand that we conform.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons suggested those who would impose a ‘fat tax’ should get stuffed. Paul Campos wrote that the problem of obesity is largely a myth. Josie Appleton argued that young people should have more to inspire them than counting calories. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick worried about the way fat children are stigmatised. Or read more at spiked issue Obesity.

(1) Low Income Diet and Nutrition Survey, Food Standards Agency, July 2007

(2) Fat: a middle-class issue, Independent on Sunday, 22 July 2007

(3) Fat: a middle-class issue, Independent on Sunday, 22 July 2007

(4) Obesity and Public Policy: Thinking Clearly and Treading Carefully, Michael Gard, Scottish Council Foundation

(5) Obesity and Public Policy: Thinking Clearly and Treading Carefully, Michael Gard, Scottish Council Foundation

(6) Quoted in The changing meaning of race, Kenan Malik

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