The Guardian published a most interesting graph this morning  spelling out the connection between obesity and deaths from Covid-19 based on deaths registered by the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre. 

Ib brief, the fatter you are, the more likely you are to die from the virus. 

Top of the killer league is Belgium with 191.76 C-19 deaths per 100, 000 population and 59% population overweight. The UK comes 3rd with 181.7 deaths per 100,000 and 63.7% of the populations overweight. Curiously Italy comes 5th with 158.39 deaths per 100,000 and 58.5% population overweight is 5th. So much for the Mediterranean Diet. Bottom of the Guardian list is the USA with 152.49 and 67.9% respectively.

(If you don’t want to die of C-19, it’s best to live in Burundi, Vietnam or Tanzania. On the other hand, 52.9% of the adult population of Papua New Guinea is overweight but it still register only 0.12 death per 100,000 so there’s no telling.)

We’ve known we have a weight problem in this country for over 35 years to my certain knowledge because I and other people were writing about it that long ago, and trying to stir government of various hues into action. Beyond platitudes and fancy phrases, very little was actually done. 

The trouble is that our politicians don’t really care about food. You can tell just how seriously they take it by considering the way in which the hospitality industry has been treated during the pandemic. I’m not going to go into detail here because many other more eloquent and more substantial figures have already done so. Just to add my ha’pothworth – it hasn’t been good.

I’d like to say that perhaps coronavirus has removed the blinkers of our elected officials and their civil servants. Judging by an announcement today, you might be encouraged to thinks so. The Department of Health and Social Care is giving the NHS and local councils £70m to pay for up to 700,000 overweight or obese people to go on ‘weight management courses’, or go on an exercise regime with a personal coach to help them shed ‘unwanted’ pounds.

Not only that, but Sir Keith Mills has been asked to look into whether financial incentives would motivate people to eat better and exercise more.  Who is Sir Keith Mills? you might ask. Well, he’s a successful and ingenious entrepreneur, an advertising/marketing guru who came up with the Air Miles reward scheme and Nectar cards among other wheezes, and according to Wikipedia is a non-executive director of Spurs Football Club, was Deputy Chairman of the organising Committee of  London Olympic Games in 2012, spent £10 million enduring the legacy promise were kept. Oh, and he’s keen sailor.

I’m sure Sir Keith is an admirable fellow in every way, but I’m not convinced that any of the above is relevant to the case in hand, or that obesity is a marketing problem that can be solved by any number of  ‘incentives’. Bribery is a misplaced blunt instrument that has no hope in addressing a complex and deep-rooted problem.

Indeed, the appointment of Sir Keith bears all the hallmarks of any number of earlier initiatives of various governments tinkering around with failing public services. Remember Prue Leith, Lloyd Grossman,  James Martin all doing their bit to ginger up hospital food?  Mary Portas breathing life into our high streets? Tanya Byron taking on the potentially harmful effects of both the Internet and video games on children? And so on and so. 

I’d love to say report that these well-intentioned folk and their good works had changed the world for the better, but, sadly, the headlines were never quite matched by the achievements. There was one bright moment when, much to my surprise, in 2013 Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent produced their School Food Plan and persuaded Michael Gove, the then Secretary for Education, to act on, well, at least part of it. For a brief moment it looked as if food/nutrition/cooking might become part of  mainstream education.

But then Gove moved on, as ministers do, and the political will to use schools as a fulcrum to educate at least one generation on the joys of eating well ebbed just as, briefly, it had flowed.

Henry Dimbleby moved on to formulate a National Food Strategy (2020),  a grander scheme altogether, all-embracing ‘an ambitious, multi-disciplinary National Food Strategy’, as Dimbleby put it. Or as George Eustace updated it taking into account the virus ‘The National Food Strategy is an opportunity for put to shape what food means to us as a society.’

We wait with bated breath. But fine words butter no parsnips, as my granny used to say. 

I wish I was convinced that the Secretary of State  Health and Social Care and his minions  actually talked to the Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs and his minions and that either of them  actually spoke to the Secretary of State for Education and his minions. 

But, like so much of this, and, to be fair, earlier governments, joined up thinking doesn’t seem to be its strong point when it comes to diet, food and health.

2 thoughts on “FAT CHANCE

  1. I couldn’t agree more with what you have written. I believe that the problem is caused by eating too much processed food. Most people if offered a block of butter, or a bowl of sugar, to eat would not consume that much. However when it’s combined (as in processed foods) it becomes irresistible to us (think fudge). Our cave dwelling ancestors knew that fatty food and sweet foods gave you more energy, and so we like those foods. The food industry is controlled by accountants, which is why good ingredients are removed and we end up consuming excessive fat, sugar and salt and other undesirable products like palm oil…

    With no decent domestic education our poor kids don’t stand a chance!

  2. Very sobering thoughts – frustrating too. Just finished reading “Scoff” by Pen Vogler – not necessarily referring to the problem of obesity but it does comment on the social factors that make for ‘good’ (even simple) eating and thus healthy eating. My own (but backed up by some reading, I’m not making this up) bottom line: obesity is mostly a social problem, poor people tend to be obese, far less so the rich. Am surprised – well, no, actually dubiously suprised – that the Guardian statistics show that there are more obese people in Italy than in the US. Hmm. Not convinced, sorry. What I do know is that Italy has one of the highest rates of obesity in the young – and that these young mostly come from the south, where there is more poverty.

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