‘Managing the proliferation of fast food outlets is a key tool in our fight against obesity and health inequalities,’ writes Iain Malcolm. Photograph:
I write in response to your article “One child in every 25 in final year of primary school is acutely obese” (24 July). As the piece highlighted, childhood obesity is a national issue but one that we are tackling proactively here at South Tyneside council.
Reducing obesity and promoting healthy lifestyles among our children and young people in particular are among our top priorities and limiting exposure to unhealthy food choices is one of the ways we can do this.
Last year we adopted new planning guidance
that seeks to refuse planning permission for takeaways in wards where the level of obesity for year 6 pupils is more than 10%. And only last month the council for the first time used this new guidance to reject a planning application for a town centre takeaway,
citing childhood obesity levels in the area as one of the grounds for refusal. Managing the proliferation of fast food outlets is a key tool in our fight against obesity and health inequalities.
• Shocking obesity figures confirm the need for government and schools to encourage more active lifestyles. The number of children leaving primary school
severely obese has hit record levels, with one in 25 pupils aged 10 and 11 in the most obese category.
Childhood obesity is one of the biggest health threats facing the UK and it’s getting worse. It’s not just about
eating better but about keeping active – and swapping the school run for a school walk is an excellent way to start.
All schools should be using their recently doubled PE and sport premium budget – funded by the “sugar tax” –
on active travel initiatives which help enable and encourage more families to walk to school, reducing inactivity, congestion and air pollution. Joe Irvin CEO, Living Streets
• Would you like to submit a photograph to be printed in the Guardian’s letters spread? If so, you can do so here
Wed 15 Aug 2018 06.00 BSTLast
modified on Thu 16 Aug 2018 13.39 BST
Illustration by Nicola Jennings
When I saw the photograph I could scarcely believe it was the same country. A picture of Brighton
beach in 1976, featured in the Guardian a few weeks ago, appeared to show an alien race. Almost everyone was slim. I mentioned
it on social media, then went on holiday. When I returned, I found that people were still debating it. The heated discussion prompted me to read more. How have we grown so fat, so fast? To my astonishment, almost every explanation proposed in the thread
turned out to be untrue.
Unfortunately, there is no consistent obesity data in the United Kingdom before 1988, at
which point the incidence was already rising sharply. But in the United States, the figures go back further. They show that, by chance, the inflection point was more or less 1976. Suddenly, at around the time that the photograph was taken, people started becoming fatter – and the trend has continued ever since.
The obvious explanation, many on social media insisted, is
that we’re eating more. Several pointed out, not without justice, that food was generally disgusting in the 1970s. It was also more expensive. There were fewer fast food outlets and the shops shut earlier, ensuring that if you missed your tea, you went
So here’s the first big surprise: we ate more in 1976. According to government figures, we currently
consume an average of 2,130 kilocalories a day, a figure that appears to include sweets and alcohol. But in 1976, we consumed 2,280 kcal excluding alcohol and sweets, or 2,590 kcal when they’re included. I have found no reason to disbelieve the figures.
‘A picture of Brighton beach in 1976, featured in the Guardian a few weeks ago, appeared to show an alien race.’ Photograph: PA
Others insisted that the cause is a decline
in manual labour. Again, this seems to make sense, but again the data doesn’t support it. A paper last year in the International Journal
of Surgery states that “adults working in unskilled manual professions are over four times more likely to be classified as morbidly obese compared with those in professional employment”.
So how about voluntary exercise? Plenty of people argued that, as we
drive rather than walk or cycle, are stuck to our screens and order our groceries online, we exercise far less than we did. It seems to make sense – so here comes the next surprise. According to a long-term study at Plymouth University, children’s physical activity is the same as it was 50 years ago. A paper in the International Journal of Epidemiology finds that, corrected for body size, there is no difference between the amount of calories burned by people in rich countries and those in poor ones, where subsistence agriculture remains the norm.
It proposes that there is no relationship between physical activity and weight gain. Many other studies suggest that exercise, while crucial to other aspects of good health, is far less important than
diet in regulating our weight. Some suggest it plays no role at all as the more we exercise, the hungrier we become.
Other people pointed to more obscure factors: adenovirus-36 infection, antibiotic use in childhood and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. While there is evidence suggesting they may all play a role, and while they could explain some of the variation in the weight gained by different people on similar diets, none appears powerful
enough to explain the general trend.
So what has happened? The light begins to dawn when you look at the nutrition figures in more detail. Yes, we ate more in 1976, but differently. Today, we buy half as much fresh milk per person, but five times more yoghurt, three times more ice cream and – wait for it – 39 times as many dairy desserts. We buy half
as many eggs as in 1976, but a third more breakfast cereals and twice the cereal snacks; half the total potatoes, but three times the crisps. While our direct purchases of sugar have sharply declined, the sugar we consume in drinks and confectionery is likely
to have rocketed (there are purchase numbers only from 1992, at which point they were rising rapidly. Perhaps, as we consumed just 9kcal a day in the form of drinks in 1976, no one thought the numbers were worth collecting.) In other words, the opportunities to load our food with sugar have boomed. As some experts have long proposed, this seems to be the issue.
The shift has not happened by accident. As Jacques Peretti argued in his film The Men Who Made Us Fat, food companies have invested heavily in designing products that use sugar to bypass our natural appetite control mechanisms, and in packaging and promoting these products to break down what remains of our defences, including through the use of subliminal scents. They employ an army of food scientists and psychologists to trick us into eating more than we need, while their advertisers use the latest findings
in neuroscience to overcome our resistance.
To judge by the debate the 1976 photograph triggered, it works. “There are no excuses.
Take responsibility for your own lives, people!” “No one force feeds you junk food, it’s personal choice. We’re not lemmings.” “Sometimes I think having free healthcare is a mistake. It’s everyone’s right to
be lazy and fat because there is a sense of entitlement about getting fixed.” The thrill of disapproval chimes disastrously with industry propaganda. We delight in blaming the victims.
More alarmingly, according to a paper in the Lancet, more than 90% of policymakers believe that “personal motivation” is “a strong or very strong influence on the rise of obesity”. Such people propose no mechanism by which the 61% of English people who are overweight or obese have lost their willpower. But this improbable explanation
seems immune to evidence.
Just as jobless people are blamed for structural
unemployment, and indebted people are blamed for impossible housing costs, fat people are blamed for a societal problem. But yes, willpower needs to be exercised – by governments. Yes, we need personal responsibility – on the part of policymakers.
And yes, control needs to be exerted – over those who have discovered our weaknesses and ruthlessly exploit them.