Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2019

Fat is a socialist issue

This article is over 17 years, 8 months old
Obesity is a growing threat to health. Carlo Morelli argues that to tackle the problem means addressing questions of inequality
Issue 2019
illustration by Tim Sanders
illustration by Tim Sanders

Levels of obesity in Britain have reached record levels and are rising. The health impact of obesity is such that for the first time in recent history children could face a lower life expectancy than their parents.

Obesity is now one of the leading causes of death in Britain, and is closely linked to diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancer.

The government’s and the media’s approach to obesity is riddled with hypocrisy.

We are continually told that individuals are to blame for their own obesity and health problems. Our own failings in eating too much of the wrong foods and not taking enough exercise are to blame for our own ill health.

The government has taken to heart Margaret Thatcher’s slogan that “there is no such thing as society”. But obesity is a social not an individual problem.

Rising obesity will not be stopped by the NHS refusing to treat people because they are obese, or by television programmes berating us.

To understand why obesity is a social not an individual question you have to understand that class lies at the centre of the problem.

It is low income families who are more likely to buy high calorie foods. It is also these families who are less likely to be able to afford either the time or the money to join the private gyms that have replaced our public pools and sports centres.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that it is poorer children who also face worse health, including diet related ill health, as they grow up.

Indeed the research conducted by the government’s own Social Exclusion Unit continues to find persistent links between low income and disadvantage.

It stated in 2004, for example, that “the social class a child is born into and their parents’ level of education and health are still major determinants of their life chances and mean that social exclusion and disadvantage can pass from generation to generation”.

As a result, health inequalities are increasing between the rich and the poor. Yet what does the government do about the link between inequality and health? The simple answer is not a lot. If the government wanted to encourage us to take more exercise, it could reduce the working week.

If it wanted poorer families to have access to better quality foods it could raise the minimum wage to something that people could live on.

Or if the government wished to reduce the number of children eating rubbish, it could fund free, nutritious school meals for all children.

To do so, however, would be to admit that at the heart of the obesity crisis is the inequality and exploitation that capitalism creates.

While the government is keen to blame individuals for their obesity, it is not so keen to lay blame with the food industry for the rise of obesity.

It forgets that it was the privatisation of school meal provision and the removal of minimum standards that led to the rise of the notorious turkey twizzler and junk food in schools.

Similarly, the food industry objected to compulsory nutritional labelling of foods. The government’s refusal to force food retailers to clearly state how much added salt, sugar and additives go into our food highlights the way government acts to limit the degree to which big business and the market are held responsible.

Similar failures help explain why at the same time as obesity is at record levels, so too are other diet related illnesses such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa.

What links all these conditions together is the focus on the individual in society’s need to “succeed”. And when things go wrong individuals are blamed.

So what should we do? First we should avoid blaming individuals. While individuals pay the price and have to deal with the consequences, we must argue for social solutions.

That means policies should seek to redistribute wealth, and remove the influence and power of big business in the food industry.

Hull City Council introduced universal free school meals into all of its primary schools in 2004 and saw uptake more than double, reaching 95 percent in the poorest areas. This refutes the claims that poor families won’t choose better health when it is offered.

Ultimately, however, only a fundamental reordering of society will bring the changes we need to see to ensure that our food is healthy and that we have the opportunity to develop to our full potential as human beings.

Finally, people who demonstrate and protest are usually healthier, both physically and mentally, than average. So anyone reading this article and wanting to do something about obesity should get to Manchester on 23 September and tell Tony Blair it is Time To Go.

Dr Carlo Morelli is a researcher on food policy at the University of Dundee


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