Exploding the myth of the obesity timebomb

Children are healthier and happier than ever before, whatever well-paid scaremongers might claim.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

Could this be ‘the generation that lives less long than the generation above them’? That’s the terrifying prospect floated by Simon Gillespie of UK charity the British Heart Foundation (BHF), discussing a new compilation of statistics about British children’s health. It’s a headline-grabbing statement. It’s also absolute nonsense.

Given such a gloomy statement, the new report itself, Children and Young People Statistics 2013, co-produced by the BHF and the Department of Public Health at Oxford University, in many ways comes as a pleasant surprise. There is much to celebrate about recent trends. For example, when it comes to congenital heart disease, the incidence has fallen and treatment has improved dramatically. And the good news isn’t confined to children. In his foreword, the BHF’s medical director, Professor Peter Weissberg, notes that ‘over the past 50 years there has been a substantial and unprecedented reduction in deaths from cardiovascular disease in the UK’. As has been widely noted, life expectancies have continued to rise in recent years, reaching 79.2 years for men and 83.3 years for women in 2012.

Yet, almost as if to scrabble around looking for something to do, the report focuses on the threats to this good news story. While much has been made of obesity rates as a threat to the health of young people, obesity rates have in fact plateaued or even fallen among children and young people. Yet the report states this through gritted teeth, noting: ‘The past five years of data have not shown such alarming increases in childhood obesity in the UK.’ Well, that’s one way of putting it, I suppose.

As for the question of type-2 diabetes, the statistics only reinforce just how unusual this disease is among children. In England in 2009, we are told, there were just 328 children and young people with type-2 diabetes (where the body produces insulin, but the body fails to respond to it properly, leading to high blood sugar levels) – compared to 20,488 cases of type-1 diabetes (where the body produces little or no insulin). It is true that type-2 was until recently called ‘adult-onset’ diabetes and regarded as almost unheard of in children, but given that doctors are far more alert to the possibility now, it is gratifying to note that it remains rare.

And this can’t be solely put down to problems with diet and exercise. A striking statistic is that among Asian and black children, over eight per cent of diabetes cases are type-2; among white children the proportion is just one per cent. This difference needs to be explained. Making sweeping statements about poor diet and lack of exercise seems misplaced.

But that doesn’t stop the BHF from doing precisely that. So the report frets that ‘most children in the UK are falling short of the recommended five or more portions of fruit and vegetables per day’. Yet the five-a-day mantra has little basis in proven improvements to actual health outcomes. Report after report has found either marginal or no differences between those who eat a lot of fruit and veg and those who don’t.

The flipside of not eating the right things is eating the wrong things. ‘Diets that are high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) can lead to energy imbalance and weight gain. Saturated fat has been linked to increased cholesterol levels and high salt has been linked to an elevated blood pressure’, says the report. Yet these claims about saturated fat and salt have been increasingly called into question in recent years. This evidence seems to have passed the report’s authors by.

Even in these terms, though, the report does not justify Gillespie’s grim-reaper fantasies. For example, the proportion of children consuming sugary soft drinks at least once a day fell in Scotland from 44 per cent in 2003 to 38 per cent in 2010/11; crisps from 52 per cent to 38 per cent; sweets or chocolate from 59 per cent to 49 per cent; and biscuits from 48 per cent to 40 per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion consuming oily fish almost doubled, from eight per cent to 14 per cent. Having a sweet fizzy drink or a bag of crisps is hardly the end of the world for children, despite the many melodramatic statements about how junk food is supposedly killing our kids, but nonetheless the healthy-eating nagging certainly has had some effect, it seems.

The reality is that despite the best efforts of the public-health lobby to try to hype up claims about a health timebomb, the trends in terms of health are generally positive. The claims about a looming health disaster have little to do with actual health. What they reflect is a number of factors that are far less positive than the nation’s life-expectancy statistics.

One is that public-health monomaniacs, like the group of researchers at Oxford University that co-authored the report, have been given far more attention and support than would have been the case in the past. Moreover, they are now moving into the corridors of Whitehall and taking up senior positions in big organisations like the BHF (income in 2012: £249million).

Another impulse, more importantly, is that the public-health agenda is very appealing to the political class. It’s great to have a mission, and what greater mission could there be than saving lives? Saving children from a life of ill health is just about every politician’s wet dream. It’s clear, it’s concrete, it shows that you care and that you are Making a Difference. Providing jobs and housing is tricky; lecturing parents and running advertising campaigns is far easier.

The trouble is that with so much moral force behind the lobbyists, experts and ministers, nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of saving children’s lives. Never mind that children are actually safer and healthier than ever before. The obesity ‘epidemic’ and all the health claims made about it provide a way into regulating and controlling people’s lives that seems uncontestable. The grotesque message seems to be: ‘Don’t argue – just think about how you’ll feel when you’re burying your children.’

The authoritarian consequences are scary. Parents cannot be trusted to feed their children correctly, apparently, so we need ever-greater measures to regulate family life, from lunchbox inspections to letters home from school telling the mums and dads of slim children that their offspring are in fact worryingly overweight. Taxes must be slapped on innocuous foods. Purveyors of tasty takeaway food must be driven away from anywhere within walking distance of a school gate. Headteachers should be prepared to ban packed lunches in order to force children to eat the approved food in the school canteen. And if your children get too fat, be prepared to have social workers take them away from you altogether.

Public health has long since ceased to be about helping the public and has little to do with health. The coalition of researchers, ‘charities’ (increasingly funded by the state), and politicians (lobbied by those state-funded charities) have taken advantage of the weakness of political life to occupy our lives.

Rob Lyons is commissioning editor of spiked.

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

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