The fat of the brand
Report on the spiked seminar.
There was plenty to chew on at the spiked seminar on 15 July, ‘The fat of the brand’. The question for debate was: are we really experiencing an epidemic of obesity – and if so, who is to blame?
The first speaker was Brendan O’Neill, assistant editor of spiked, who questioned our ‘screwed-up attitude to food’ and suggested that the public outcry about obesity is really about morality rather than health. He said that there was little clear evidence for an ‘obesity epidemic’, or a firm link between childhood and adulthood obesity. He disagreed with the ‘doom-laden claims’ made by the media and health organisations; especially since statistics show that we’re healthier and living longer than ever.
He also questioned fears over junk food. He quoted an expert’s view that ‘junk food’ is a contradiction in terms – all food is in fact good for you in some way, depending on the quantities in which it is consumed, and our bodies cannot differentiate between, say, a McDonald’s burger and foie gras.
David Haslam, GP and chair of the National Obesity Forum, argued that the ‘obesity epidemic’ is real. He said that in his practice he has seen a huge increase in obesity levels and obesity-related diseases such as type-II diabetes. He claimed that obese people are a hundred times more at risk for type-II diabetes than their slimmer counterparts, that obesity accounts for 30,000 deaths per year, and that on average being obese reduces your life expectancy by nine years. He said that even if obesity levels do not increase at all, there will be an epidemic of diabetes within 10 years and an epidemic of heart disease within 14. He outlined the strategies the National Obesity Forum is putting in place to combat this ‘huge epidemic’.
According to Peter Marsh, co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre, this was ‘an epidemic of hype’. He questioned whether obesity will make us the first generation to die before our parents, as some organisations and politicians have claimed – and he criticised the House of Commons Health Select Committee’s report on obesity for its sky-is-falling rhetoric. He also said that measures taken to combat obesity were ‘draconian’.
Marsh acknowledged that there has been an increase in average weight. However, the distribution is skewed: the fat are getting fatter and the thin are getting thinner, or staying as thin. The cause of this, he said, is the ‘middle-class concept of health correctness’. This concept has created more fat people as well as more people with eating disorders such as anorexia. He argued that people are more fearful about their health, and this has spawned society’s ‘dysfunctional relationship with food’.
We should ‘get beyond apocalyptic nonsense’, said Marsh, and come up with more practical ideas that will have a beneficial effect on people’s lives. We should enjoy living, and eating, well.
When the debate was opened to the audience, a number of people queried the role of diet in obesity. Simon Taylor asked why none of the speakers had mentioned exercise, given that physical activity is as important a factor as diet. He also commented on the issue of advertising, saying that because advertising for fatty and sugary products hasn’t changed much over time, it shouldn’t really be a factor in the debate. (This was taken up by a marketing professional in the audience, who complained about the ‘devious things companies get into when marketing stuff’.) Meanwhile, Daniel Smith noted some ‘cultural changes related to exercise’, such as children not going out on their own, that could have contributed to rising obesity.
Some emphasised the link between obesity and ill health. John Garrow, chairman of the charity Health Watch, argued that there has been a genuine increase in obesity and associated health risks, and said that to deny this was ‘lousy science’.
But others questioned the connections Haslam had drawn between obesity and health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and bullying. Haslam responded by saying that obesity is a ‘multi-factorial condition’, but the link between diabetes and obesity is very strong, so much so that some refer to the two as ‘diabesity’. However, he said that links between obesity and problems such as asthma are more controversial.
Michael Fitzpatrick, a GP and spiked’s medical correspondent, argued that there is a complex relationship between obesity and type-II diabetes – pointing out that on the one hand, many of his diabetic patients in Hackney were not overweight, and on the other, that the fit and able rower Steve Redgrave, winner of five Olympic gold medals, had type-II diabetes, so it couldn’t be a straight causal relationship. He said that the obesity epidemic is ‘by no means self-evident’, and raised concerns that a medical problem had become a ‘public hoo-haa’, leading to half-baked prejudice against overweight people.
In summing up, David Haslam reiterated the argument that there will soon be epidemics of diabetes, heart disease and asthma – and said that there is a good chance that in the near future we will see far more side-effects of diabetes in the general public.
‘Food’, said Brendan O’Neill in closing, ‘has become the defining issue of our age’. Could it be, he wondered, that food is now the only connection between the classes and between different sections of society? ‘When food becomes its own issue’, he said, ‘we have to wonder what has gone wrong with society’.
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