Here we go again. Recently there’s been the annual brouhaha about the state of the nation’s waistline, followed by the usual thunderous declaration that WE MUST DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.
Do you have any idea how many calories you’re supposed to eat every day? I had some vague notion but I couldn’t have said with absolute certainty. It’s tricky keeping track of these things.
According to www.gov.uk women are supposed/allowed to eat 2,000 calories a day, and men 2,500 a day. It’s a touch confusing because in the following paragraph the same site states that ‘There will be a simple rule of thumb to help them do this: 400:600:600 – people should aim for 400 calories from breakfast and 600 each from lunch and dinner.’ Even by my elementary maths, this comes to 1600 calories, rather less than the figures suggested a few lines above. Hmm. Which is it to be? To be honest, I can’t remember the day when I ate less that 2,500 calories, myself, but then I’m not the ideal example.
Come to that how many people do you know eat strictly three times a day? How about snacking? Grazing? Browsing? And drinking? 150: 100: 250: 50: 300: 250: 350:75: 75 would be a more realistic calorie ratio. And what does 400:600:600 look like on the plate. It’s actually quite tricky to work out accurately, say the content of a bowl of porridge with a splash of milk and a dash of maple syrup, my breakfast if the moment. How many grams of oats? What’s a splash of milk? Is a dash of maple syrup a desert spoon or a tablespoon? Hang on, I forgot the salt – a pinch and a half. And the orange juice – 1 freshly squeezed. Phew. Who can be bothered?
Heaven knows, the earnest advice from NHE is meant well. This (and other) nations are in dire need of a serious slimming programme. The official statistics are stupefying. According to Public Health England, 66% of adults, 25% of 2-10 years and 33% of 11-15 years olds are overweight of obese, with the consequent growth in health problems – diabetes and heart disease, in particular.
It rather gives the lie to the cosy belief that we’re witnessing a great food revolution. A great food delusion.
True, some things are better than they were thirty or even twenty years ago. All of us know more about food than our parents. We have access to ingredients that they never dreamed of, thanks largely to the supermarkets, We travel to places that were inaccessible to them, and experience dishes that would have seemed impossibly esoteric. And this has led to better cooking, better food, better diets and better health for a small but significant section of society. But the statistics on obesity and its consequences show that the very large majority graze, snack, binge, nibble on ready meals, convenience foods, sugary drinks and general rubbish, get fat and suffer the consequences.
This government, like some long-slumbering giant, is blearily waking up and wagging it’s finger at us, admonishing us to behave like sensible, rational people and take care of ourselves better. Quite right too. They’ve backed this up by wagging their finger at the food industry, too. There’s got to be less sugar, less fat, and fewer calories by 2020, they insist, or ….or….or else we’ll be very cross.
That’s all well and good, but it isn’t as if we haven’t been here before. Fingers have been wagged for years, to absolutely no effect on our bingeing habits. Of course, the food industry has spent billions over the last fifty years persuading us to consume more of everything that isn’t good for us – air (cheapest), water )next cheapest), fat (a little more expensive but addictive), sugar and salt (ditto) – in the gross quantities we like to consume them.
But you can’t blame the food industry for everything. It’s not as if the counter message hasn’t also been given very considerable weight. Aside from a succession of government campaigns telling us what’s good for us to eat and what isn’t, for decades it’s been impossible to open a magazine or newspaper or turn on the TV without coming across some super-slim, toned and burnished demigod or demigoddess extolling the virtues of eating healthily, pushing this diet or that – raw, pescetarian, vegan, vegetarian, Neanderthal, Stone Age, Atkins, Ketogenic, low carb, no carb, 5:2 and so on and so on.
But nothing seems to stem the tide of over-consumption by the large proportion of the population, and it seems reasonable to ask why not? Is this because we don’t understand the relationship between diet, weight and health? If we do, why don’t we do something about it. And if we don’t, why don’t we? No one can say we haven’t been told, warned, hectored, lectured, preached at, threatened and generally bossed about on the subject of our diet for years. But that may be the problem.We just don’t like being told what to do.
When people try to tell us what to think or how to act, we become bolshy and obstinate and do the opposite. Think of Brexit. The Remain campaign was almost entirely run on negatives – the dire consequences of what would happen if we leave. No one – no one – made the case that the EU was a good thing, a fine institution and that sharing values, culture, social goals and trade was better than antediluvian isolationism of the deluding trumpet blasts of an imperial past. In retrospect, it isn’t surprising that, we gave the dim-witted, patronising, condescending elite who lectured us that we should be afraid, very afraid if we left, two fingers. (I am an ardent Remainer, in case there’s any doubt.)
It may seem far-fetched, but I rather think that much the same process is at work when it comes to the national diet. There is a complete disconnection between those set in authority over us, and us. We’re fed up with being told, warned, hectored, lectured, preached at, threatened and generally bossed about when it comes to what we eat. Food is presented to us as a threat not as a pleasure, as a source of anxiety not of happiness, as a medical treatment not as a menu for contentment. We have so little control over the rest of our lives that we’re blowed if we won’t exercise what little independence left to us, and decide for ourselves what we’ll eat and when we’ll eat it, thank you, even if we know it’s not very good for us.
The situation is not helped by the fact that the enlightened food culture in the UK is overwhelmingly the province of the middle classes. Our most revered food heroes – Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Derek Cooper, Keith Floyd, Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater – have all been well-educated middle class folk writing or performing for largely middle class readers or viewers. In spite of the Jamie Olivers and the Tom Kerridges, the tone and voice is still overwhelmingly middle class, the gastronomic vocabulary is middle class, the people who deploy it are middle class, and their audience is middle class. (And, of course, I’m middle class, myself). The converted speak to the converted. Food is a form of social exclusion. If you don’t know the difference between malt vinegar and balsamic, between sourdough and sliced white, between extra virgin olive oil and sunflower, you’re not part of our club. Consequently, many Britons simply don’t feel the common ownership of their food culture enjoyed by most European and other countries.
So it’s not surprising that we haven’t found the right language, tone and voice to reach, persuade and convince people to make more of something they do three times or more often a day, even if it is 400:600:600 calories.
Of course, words, in themselves cannot be the universal dietary panacea. Whether we like it or not, the nanny state has a part to play. It’s no accident that the diet of the nation was at its best and most egalitarian when there was rationing during and just after the war. Then the government controlled what and how much each person could eat – lots of vegetables and not much meat.
And, Christ, it was dull. No one in their right mind wants to go back to those days, but it remains an example of what can be achieved through direct state intervention. And it’s in the interests of the state to intervene. At present the NHS is heading for a perfect storm as a large portion of the working, and, therefore, tax-paying, population will need its services because of obesity and related diseases, and a growing portion of the population live longer and need care as they do so. God knows what happens when these two demographics collide. It’s not enough to hector us and wag a finger at the food industry. Self-regulation has never worked.
There needs to greater political recognition of the social importance of food. Targets for the food industry must be made mandatory. More practical support can be given to quality food producers. More can be done in schools. We need to build pride in what we make and grow on a broader social front. We need to understand better the mechanisms that influence why we eat what we eat. Above all, we need to find the tone and voice and words to seduce us into loving and caring about what we eat.
And then maybe, just maybe, we may stop stuffing our faces indiscriminately.