The UK obesity epidemic is a sad indictment of our dysfunctional relationship with food. It’s telling that we are about the only nation on earth without an internationally recognised cuisine (sorry but fish and chips are part of the problem).
This tragic lack of culinary inheritance means we lack any sort of precedence. If you’ve never been taught to cook with fresh ingredients that have been grown and used by generations before you, the chances are you will gravitate to cheaper, easier options. Boris’ well meaning but flawed obesity-busting package misses the point; if he really wants to improve the nation’s health he will need to change our attitude to eating.
Banning advertising of ‘junk’ food after the 9pm watershed makes little sense – what does a desire to protect children from scenes of a sexual nature have to do with beating obesity? Is Boris suggesting that night owls don’t deserve protection from the evils of refined sugar and saturated fat? Surely it is the drunk post pub brigade who are most susceptible to the draw of a takeaway pizza commercial or the comfort of a beef and tomato Pot Noodle. Everyone knows that eating junk food after 9pm is bad for your health and digestive system, so why allow insomniacs and vulnerable late night shopping-channel addicts to fall foul of junk food advertisers whilst shielding the rest? Most young people have access to unregulated smartphones where they can ogle McDonald’s ads all night if they so choose.
If Boris is serious about trimming the nation’s waist, he will need to revolutionise the culture, something successive governments have singularly failed to do. UK food tsar Henry Dimbleby has called for a change in Britain’s relationship with food. He claims “we tend to rush our meals, spending almost half as much time eating as the French” and he laments that food and cooking is not as central to national life.
As a nation, we tend to view food mainly as fuel, to be imbibed either on the go or whilst staring at the TV. When deciding what to eat too many of us prioritise value and ease over quality and effort. Boris should be encouraging us to look to Europe where languorous lunches and lovingly prepared home-cooked meals are part of the fabric of everyday life.
When it comes to healthy eating, it is the poorest who suffer most. Residents on rundown estates with little or no infrastructure can’t just pop down to the corner shop for some courgettes and olive oil. Driving miles to a well-stocked supermarket may not be an option. Those convenience stores that do exist tend to be the crisps-and-sweets type establishments where it only makes sense to stock easily perishable food if there is adequate demand. This leaves us with a cultural catch-22.
Without a radical shift in the culture, those most vulnerable to obesity will continue to buy cheap, unhealthy produce more out of necessity than choice, or they will simply give up cooking altogether.
The sad fact is we have let ourselves go as a nation and it shows in our attitude to food. When a country loses its sense of purpose, the inhabitants will naturally turn to comfort eating to fill the void. If we could forge a truly British culinary heritage for ourselves and take pride in our nation, we’d be more inclined to look after ourselves.
James Innes-Smith is the author of The Seven Ages of Man : How to Live a Meaningful Life. Little, Brown November 2020.