Is society suffering from an eating disorder?

In an extract from his new book, Rob Lyons asks why, despite having solved the problem of hunger, people in Western countries seem more fearful of food than ever.

Rob Lyons

Topics Books

Until comparatively recently, there was only one question that the majority of people needed to ask in relation to food: how will we get enough? Most of the world’s population, for most of human history, has lived in a constant struggle to obtain enough food to survive and thrive.

As author Tom Standage engagingly notes in his book An Edible History of Humanity, the attempt to obtain food, and the way in which surplus food is used, is a major driving force of history. Civilisation is based upon the switch from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture. When farming started to produce a surplus, the monopolisation of that surplus was the basis for the earliest class societies. Food shortages have changed the course of wars and helped to bring down the Soviet bloc.

Yet for the developed world, food is no longer the pressing, day-to-day problem it once was. Of course, there are still many people today – at least one billion according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) – for whom the struggle to eat is a constant battle. It is estimated that eight million people per year die of hunger or diseases related to it. But for almost everyone living in developed countries, and for a growing proportion of the population in developing countries, the problem of food has ceased to be about keeping body and soul together.

According to FAO statistics for 2007, for each person in the world there was food to provide an average of 2,768 calories, 76 grammes of protein and 78 grammes of fat per day. Not all of this food is actually consumed – much of it is wasted in various ways – nor is it evenly distributed. For example, in that same year the UK produced the equivalent of 3,426 calories per person per day while in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, the average was just 1,500 calories per person per day.

Overall, the FAO suggests, 13 per cent of the world’s population was undernourished in 2007, a figure which has risen since because of the economic crisis and rising food prices, though in truth the number of people who have insufficient food is at best an educated guess. The FAO also notes that the absolute number of people who experience food shortages (as opposed to the proportion of the total population that is going hungry) has been rising for over a decade.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the world now has the capacity to feed itself, despite a fast-growing population. If there is hunger, it is because particular countries are insufficiently developed – or disrupted by circumstances like drought or war – to buy or to grow enough food for themselves. Given the perilous situation that existed in the Sixties, when a social challenge of growing world population and inadequate agricultural production threatened to starve (not merely leave undernourished) hundreds of millions of people, it is worth pausing to count our blessings. The continued existence of hunger should be a matter of global urgency, particularly as there is no good technical reason for it, but it is also far less of a problem than was feared 40 years ago thanks to developments in agriculture and rising wealth.

Yet, the countries that seem to be fretting most about food are the ones in which the food question, as it was historically understood, has been solved. Now, there is great concern that we are eating too much, that we are consuming the wrong kinds of food and that food is produced in a way that is not environmentally sustainable. The topic of food has become a hook on which to hang all sorts of prejudices and panics, from class snobbery to anti-capitalism. While in many cases there is an element of truth to the concerns expressed, these fears are blown out of all proportion.

In short, whole societies are now suffering from a kind of eating disorder. If our food isn’t going to kill us directly, it would seem, it will wreck the planet around us. This outlook is every bit as irrational and self-loathing as that of anorexics who see themselves as fat even as they starve to death.

Perhaps the biggest food-related concern in recent years has been the threat of an ‘obesity timebomb’. In the US and the UK, the proportion of the population that is now deemed to be obese has risen sharply in the past three decades. In relation to America’s expanding waistlines, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes: ‘In 1990, among states participating in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 10 states had a prevalence of obesity less than 10 per cent and no states had prevalence equal to or greater than 15 per cent… In 2008, only one state (Colorado) had a prevalence of obesity less than 20 per cent. Thirty-two states had a prevalence equal to or greater than 25 per cent; six of these states… had a prevalence of obesity equal to or greater than 30 per cent.’

In the UK, the statistics are less dramatic, but there has been, until very recently, a trend towards rising rates of obesity. In 1980, less than 10 per cent of the UK population was considered to be obese. By 2008, 24 per cent of women and 25 per cent of men fell into the obese category. However, recent official statistics suggest that Britain’s weight gain has plateaued, at least for now.

Yet the UK and US are not the fattest nations on Earth – other countries with smaller populations like Samoa, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are even heavier. Indeed, the rise of obesity is a worldwide phenomenon, with substantial portions of the populations of developing countries deemed to be overweight, particularly those living in cities.

This matters because obesity has been associated in numerous studies with a variety of chronic conditions, particularly heart disease, cancer and type-2 diabetes. If we do not tackle the problem of obesity, we are warned, millions will die and many more will suffer years of ill-health. In 2004, the US secretary of health Tommy Thompson declared that 400,000 Americans were dying every year because of their weight. The British celebrity chef and food campaigner, Jamie Oliver, has warned that children will die at a younger age than their parents if eating habits don’t change.

Governments around the world have launched all manner of campaigns to try to get their citizens to cut the calories and do more exercise in a bid to reverse the rise in obesity. But it is questionable whether the simple equation ‘obesity = disease’ is really true. In fact, in the US it seems that ‘overweight’ people have the longest life expectancy while there is little real difference in health outcomes between those who are ‘normal’, ‘overweight’ or ‘mildly obese’.

Whether or not we are eating too much or exercising too little, there is the separate issue of whether we are eating the right things. A survey for the UK Food Standards Agency published in February 2010 showed that only 35 per cent of adults – and just 15 per cent of teenagers – consumed the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. While intakes of saturated fats and sugar were down compared to a decade earlier, they were still above the government’s target levels, while consumption of oily fish and dietary fibre was considered too low.

All sorts of claims are made about the importance of eating these recommended foods. Our salad-dodging ways apparently mean that we may be missing out on important nutrients, and not just the obvious ones like protein, vitamins and minerals. Yet other surveys in the UK suggest that almost everyone is getting all the protein, vitamins and minerals they need. In fact, according to an article in The Times (London) last year, the five-a-day ‘mantra’ was a piece of PR designed to encourage us to eat more fruit and veg rather than something based on evidence of any particular benefit. In fact, research into the consumption of fruit and veg has proved to be very disappointing for health crusaders, consistently failing to show that eating more bananas, broccoli, carrots, etc has any impact on our health or longevity.

Poor diet has been claimed to be the root of antisocial behaviour in and out of the classroom. In 2008, John Stein, professor of physiology at Oxford University, told The Times: ‘We see on TV every day somebody who has been stabbed or shot. That is often a consequence of people not being able to control their anger, and being unable to focus their attention on the consequences of their actions. I think this can be caused by a slight impairment of the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that is most sensitive to lack of key nutrients.’

This reductionist thinking also played a part in celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s campaigning TV series Jamie’s School Dinners. Children who ate better, particularly by consuming slowly digested meals rather than quick calories from sugary ‘junk’ food, would concentrate better in class and would be less likely to misbehave, we were told. This argument appeared to gain support from a study by the Royal Economic Society and Essex University presented to a conference in March 2010, which suggested that pupils who started at school in Greenwich when Oliver’s campaign was launched there did better than pupils in neighbouring areas with similar levels of deprivation. Yet, as I noted on spiked when the report was finally published, the study data and methods simply could not tell us whether the new school meals had any positive effect, and actually there were other, more plausible explanations for improved results.

The changing constitution of our diets is also being blamed for the rise in obesity. Many writers, including David A Kessler, argue that a lot of people are now actually addicted to the food they eat. In his book, Kessler describes a veteran war correspondent, whom he calls Andrew, and his battle with junk-food temptation. ‘The food industry has been remarkably successful at designing foods to capture the attention of people like him. Food manufacturers, food designers, and restaurant owners may not fully understand the science behind the appeal of their foods, but they know that sugar, fat and salt sell. As surely as if he were wearing a bull’s-eye on his chest, Andrew is one of the industry’s targets.’

Kessler asserts that malevolent fast-food industry executives have got us all fat by cynically targeting our ‘reward centres’, caring little for the health of their customers. Many of these customers are helpless, Kessler argues, in the face of a packet of M&M’s, a tub of ice cream or a box of fried chicken.

But it seems ludicrous to suggest that inanimate objects could have this overwhelming pull over us. Maybe ‘Andrew’ and others are simply torn because they like doughnuts, cakes and other such illicit treats – and maybe they should just enjoy them instead of making themselves miserable in a constant state of conflicted self-denial.

Malevolent industry is a long-running theme of numerous other writers, including American authors Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and British writers like Joanna Blythman (Bad Food Britain) and Felicity Lawrence (Eat Your Heart Out). We are the poor saps who cannot resist the mixture of marketing and biochemistry employed by the fast-food chains and major supermarkets. Only by breaking free from the iron grip of Big Food, goes the argument, can we restore a previous golden age of health and self-reliance. Do such arguments really reflect how we eat, or do they simply reflect the prejudices of the authors about both Big Food and the Dumb Masses? As John Carey notes in his book, The Intellectuals and the Masses, such snobbish attitudes have a long pedigree. In the 1920s, it was disdain for canned food and fish-and-chip shops; today, the problem is burger joints and microwave ready-meals.

If it’s not our health that’s at risk, then it’s the planet. We should be fretting, we are told, about how many ‘food miles’ are travelled from fork (in the ground) to fork (in our mouths). We should stop eating meat because burping and farting cows and sheep will hasten global warming. We should be doing more to cut down on food waste due to all the valuable resources required to produce food that is simply thrown away – at the farm, at the shop, at the sandwich store or in the home. We should eat organic food to avoid using artificial fertilisers and pesticides.

But ‘food miles’ are a poor measure of the environmental impact of food production and transportation in any event. Meat production is much more efficient and less environmentally harmful than vegetarians would have you believe. Food waste from supermarkets is actually surprisingly small compared to the amount of food they sell, and food waste is, in any event, a by-product of prosperity: we can choose to decide on a whim to eat something else instead and leave the food in the fridge to go off. And why would anyone insist that food should be produced ‘organically’, retreating to production methods that are the best part of 100 years old and hopelessly outdated?

In my new book Panic on a Plate, I argue that in order to understand these negative reactions to food, we need to step back from the individual issues and set such concerns in the context of wider changes in Western societies.

Firstly, there is a diminished sense of humanity’s capabilities and, by implication, an exaggerated sense of our vulnerability. For example, the fact that such a large proportion of the world’s population can now be fed is a remarkable achievement. Far from a growing population leaving many more people hungry, as a variety of Malthus-inspired doomsayers have suggested, the number of calories available per head rose from 2,254 in 1961 to 2,768 in 2007.

Yet popular discussion focuses not on the fact that we have done this before, but on the assumption that increasing food production to such an extent again must be impossible. As my colleague at spiked, Brendan O’Neill, has pointed out, the idea that there are ‘too many people’ has gone from taboo to common sense in just a few years.

Or take a look at the issue of obesity. Rather than taking a step back and understanding that overnutrition is a far better problem to have than undernutrition, mainstream commentary frets about a terrifying toll in the future of weight-related illness and death. This prospect has been, to use fast-food parlance, super-sized. The overwhelming majority of obese people – who are only really fat in the eyes of medical statisticians, not by the standards of their friends and family – can look forward to a life expectancy very similar to that of their more slender peers.

Even the issue of food addiction reveals a debased view of humanity. Never mind that we are conscious beings balancing a whole range of influences in making our decisions. The idea that some wicked concoction of sugar, fat and salt ‘makes’ us gorge ourselves equates human beings with lab rats. Suddenly, we are relieved of the responsibility of dealing with our own lives and we can blame our failings on evil corporations while fetishising foodstuffs.

Another development is the way that political life has collapsed, resulting in a view of the world that lacks a sense of historical perspective and is profoundly individualised. In particular, the death of optimism – of both the free-market and left-wing varieties – has left us with a world without alternatives where the only active political voices are those of the middle classes. Those who want to pronounce on food seem often to be the most petty, individualistic and fearful, dripping with hatred for the formerly opposing poles of society that threatened them on either side: big business to the right, the working class to the left.

The result is a discussion about food that is quick to blame big corporations for wrecking the quaint world of small producers and retailers and which looks down on the masses for their ‘tacky’, greedy eating habits. In this snobbish way of looking at food, what we eat is a lifestyle choice, a way of playing with identity, of making a difference to ‘the planet’… it’s anything but a way of providing fuel to live.

A third theme is the way that this handwringing about food has provided a way for governments to connect with the populace. When our political leaders have no vision for the future that looks anything different from the present – indeed, simply preserving things as they are is the height of their ambitions – food becomes a focus for intervention on health, education and environmental grounds that gives those in power a way of getting their hooks into our lives. And the consequences are unlikely to be anything other than authoritarian. If we cannot be inspired by celebrity chefs or persuaded to stop eating too much by fears for our health, we must be controlled more directly. Ten years ago, it would have seemed absurd that teachers would inspect children’s lunchboxes for the ‘wrong’ food; now it’s routine.

The aim of Panic on a Plate is to offer a humane and humanist view of how we could approach food. Things have never been this good, so let us relax and enjoy our good fortune while striving both to make things even better here in the developed world and to make sure that everyone else in the world can take a seat at the feast as soon as possible.

This panic on our plates is robbing us of the pleasure of food. Rather than revelling in the cornucopia of what society now provides, we fret about waistline inches and food miles. Parents are left to wonder if every little treat is really a poison. Every mouthful becomes something to be feared, even just a little, rather than fully enjoyed. A Frenchman once said that the English had 200 religions, but only one sauce. Well, religion ain’t what it used to be and the one sauce is now a rather bitter one: guilt. It’s time we tackled our eating disorder.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. This is an edited extract from his book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, published by Societas. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


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