Happy New Year! Tis the season to be wary – wary of alcohol, sugar, cigarettes, carbohydrates, and all the other stuff that makes life bearable. What have you given up for New Year? Me, I’m off the fags, again, and taking exercise in an attempt to lose a bit of weight.
It seems our country is increasingly weight-obsessed. Every day, a newspaper article waggles its finger in our face, telling us that 22% of Brits are obese. It’s not just the UK – globally, over-eating is now killing three times as many people as malnutrition, according to a report published in The Lancet in December. We need a new kind of charity fundraiser: Don’t Feed The World, or Enough with the World-Feeding Already, where the developing world audience will be shown moving video montages of over-weight westerners. ‘This is Homer. Homer hasn’t seen his toes for five years. For just £1, you can help us swap Homer’s doughnuts for celery.’
Humans have always worried about their diet. The Greek philosophers thought what you ate was a key part of the good life, and therefore of ethical philosophy. In fact, diatia means ‘a way of life’, suggesting the Greeks thought a wise diet has to be part of a whole ethical framework. ‘Eat to live, don’t live to eat’, said Socrates, he of the pot-belly.
Over-eating and corpulence has long been a problem, but it tended to mainly affect the upper classes, simply because everyone else had to work so hard. Over-eating particularly affected French kings, like William the Conqueror, who became so fat in his 40s that he set himself a diet of only drinking booze (it didn’t work), or his son, Henry I of England, who died from eating too many eels.
While the upper classes got fat, the lower classes struggled with the threat of starvation, and this threat lasted in western countries well into the 19th century, when Thomas Malthus wrote his Essay on Human Population, in which he speculated that famine and pestilence would always keep our numbers in check:
The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.
He was a cheery old soul, Malthus.
Even in the 20th century, a large proportion of our population faced constant hunger and malnutrition. My distant ancestor, Seebohm Rowntree, researched how many calories a day a worker needed in order to stave off malnutrition. He then discovered that many workers in Britain were not paid enough to acquire that basic diet, and that over a quarter of people in his native York lived below the calorie-poverty line. He used that evidence, gathered in his great work Poverty, to campaign for the introduction of a minimum wage and the eventual introduction of unemployment benefits and other state protections.
From austerity to affluence, and back again
Yet in the post-war boom, within a dizzying period of 15 years, western countries went from staving off the threat of starvation, to trying to cope with the new problems of affluence: anxiety, addiction, consumerism and consumer debt, body-image disorders and over-eating. It was in the second half of the 20th century that dieting became big business – Weight Watchers was set up in 1963 by a Brooklyn housewife called Jean Nidetch before eventually becoming a global conglomerate with $1.5 billion in annual sales. Gyms also became big business in the 1960s, like Gold’s Gym, founded in 1965.
The post-war neo-liberal individual tried to discipline themselves, manage themselves, govern themselves in the age of affluence. But all too often, the age of affluence won, we simply couldn’t resist all the high-fat, high-sugar, high-sodium products waved before our noses. And our bellies got bigger and bigger.
In the last 20 years, obesity has become a political issue. It’s an issue right at the heart of the politics of well-being, a politics which in some ways challenges neo-liberalism and suggests that governments have a greater and more interventionist role to play in guiding us towards the good life. Obesity, from one perspective, represents a failure of liberalism: a failure of individuals to be the rational governors of their selves. Edmund Burke said: ‘Men are qualified for liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.’ If we are incapable of controlling our appetites, does the state have to step in to control them for us?
The issue is particularly salient in European countries where there is some form of nationalised health service – because in that instance, obesity is the result of people’s personal life-choices, but the economic consequences of those life-choices are socialized. And now we’re in the age of austerity, we’re wondering if we can afford to pay for the ills of affluence. The Department of Health estimates that obesity costs the NHS £5.1 billion a year. That’s half of what we spend on higher education annually. Rather than paying for young people’s education, we’re paying for obese people’s diet.
What could be done? One possibility is introducing ‘fat taxes’ on junk food, or ‘soda taxes’ on fizzy drinks. At the moment, higher calorie foods are cheaper than healthy foods, but a tax would change that and could lead to a change in public consumer habits, much as higher taxes have led to a steep decline in smoking. Fat taxes have proved very controversial, however. Attempts to introduce them in the US have so far failed (two cities in California were the latest to reject a city-wide ‘soda tax’ in November last year, after an intense lobbying campaign by Coke, Pepsi and others), while Denmark introduced a ‘fat tax’ in 2011, only to abolish it a year later.
Then there are more direct methods governments can take – Mayor Bloomberg of New York has introduced a ban on extra-large containers for fizzy drinks, which comes into effect in March. Others in the US have called for food benefits to only be usable for healthy foods. In the UK, David Cameron has considered introducing a junk food tax, while Labour’s shadow health secretary Andy Burnham called this weekend for statutory controls on the amount of sugar, fat and sodium in foods, including children’s cereal.
And a new report published by Westminster Council this week suggested that benefits could be tied to the amount of exercise people took. It writes: “the increasing use of smart cards for access to leisure facilities…provides councils with a significant amount of data on usage patterns. Where an exercise package is prescribed to a resident, housing or council tax benefit payments could be varied to reward or incentivize residents.’ Yes, the next time you go to pick up your benefits, they’ll say ‘I’m sorry sir, the computer says you only spent ten minutes on the jogging machine this week.’ Run, man! Think of the kids!
Such efforts are controversial partly because they often, as in Jamie Oliver’s ‘food revolution’, involve middle-class people telling working-class people to buck up their ideas and get a grip. As satirical website the Daily Mash put it:
From April all benefit claimants will be fitted with a headset so they can be controlled by a middle class person who is trained to know what is best for everyone. The headset will be attached with stainless steel screws and a probe will enter the brain via the ear. Electronic pulses delivered via a Department for Work and Pensions satellite will then be used to control every aspect of the poor person’s lifestyle. A spokesman said: “You can’t stay fat if your brain is being controlled by someone who went to university.
There is some truth to this satire. Obesity is to some extent correlated with income and poverty, perhaps because high calorie foods are cheaper than health foods, because state schools have worse sports facilities than private schools (they often no longer have any facilities at all), and because if you’re depressed or unemployed you’re more likely to be overweight, and the strongest predictor of depression is poverty. However, obesity is also rising among middle and upper income populations.
Some claim that the ‘war on obesity’ has been manufactured, like other wars before it, to give political elites an excuse to intervene in others’ lives, as the Thinifers invade the Fattypuffs in the children’s book. It’s a politics of superiority and revulsion at an imagined fat other, who should be punished for their lassitude. Some suggest that public health officials are being alarmist, and that in fact there is no strong link between Body-Mass Index or BMI, and mortality risk. In fact, the statistics suggest that if you are slightly overweight, you are likely to live longer. So should doctors be telling the fit to grow slightly fat?
Others suggest that the obsession with dieting and body-image is making us all miserable. James Watson, discoverer of DNA and one of our greatest living scientists, thinks the plump may be happier and even better in bed, because their higher-fat diets produce more of a hormone called MSH. Watson became interested in MSH after hearing of a scientist who injected himself with it to try and get a tan, and who instead got an eight-and-a-half-hour erection. ‘I now look at fat couples in a totally different way’ says Watson. ‘When you see two thin people together you know they’ve got problems.’
It is a strange situation we’re in. The fatter America gets in reality, the more its media sells America a thin fantasy for the populace to gaze at. It’s the same in the UK, to some extent – my friend, a newsreader, was told to shed the pounds to go on CNN, and in my local gym, I am constantly flanked by the BBC’s Gavin Esler, toiling away to preserve our thin national persoa. Go Gavin go!
Fighting this supposed body-fascism is an American organization called NAAFA, the National Association for the Acceptance of Fat Americans, which organises conventions, summer camps and fashion shows. Their events attract a certain amount of thin men who, er, like their girls big. There are also several dating websites for the overweight and ‘chubby chasers’, called things like Cuddly Free and Single.
I do think NAAFA have a point, and that our society sells us an image of thinness, then various high calorie consolations for not meeting that image. Still, I wonder what history will make of our era, in 50 years, when the world is warmer, arable land is shrinking, and we are wondering how to feed the nine billion. Anyway, in the meantime, I’m going to stick to my exercise plan for a few more weeks, not out of any Puritanical sense of self-loathing, just because exercise makes me feel good, whatever Watson says. Besides, my diet plan is not particularly spartan. It comes from the first-ever published guide to battling obesity, from 1864:
For breakfast I take four or five ounces of beef, a cup of tea, a biscuit and dried toast.
For dinner, five or six ounces of fish or meat, and two or three glasses of good claret.
For tea, fruit.
For supper, three or four ounces of meat, with a glass or two of claret.
For nightcap, a tumbler of grip, or a glass or two of claret.
This plan leads to an excellent night’s rest.
Time for another claret I think…
In other news:
Here is an NYT write-up of a great study in Science magazine by Harvard’s Dan Gilbert and others, showing to what extent we underestimate how much we will change in the next ten years – a fallacy Gilbert calls ‘the End of History illusion’.
Here’s an interesting critique of the Skidelskys’ book, ‘How Much is Enough?’, from a philosophy professor at Notre-Dame. He thinks the Skidelskys have not quite found the right balance between liberal autonomy and the Greeks’ idea of the good life, and have missed out the crucial role of liberal education. It is education that teaches us to govern ourselves and find happiness in the wisest ways (an important issue in the battle against obesity). In which case, the question becomes how best to provide quality education to everyone, not just until they are 21, but afterwards. Why is adult education so far down the policy radar at the moment!
Anyway, British universities have launched their own MOOC platform (MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course) called FutureLearn. The CEO is the person who set up the BBC’s iPlayer. Exciting development – I’ll try and get an interview with him for this blog.
Here is a good TED talk by Rene Gude, a leading Dutch philosopher, who is battling cancer and who recently had a leg amputated. TED without the bullshit.
Here’s an interview with Nassim Nicholas Taleb being typically crotchety:
I’ve enjoyed Melvyn Bragg’s latest series on Radio 4, called The Value of Culture, which explores the idea of culture from Matthew Arnold to Raymond Williams to Roger Scruton (although no women discussed, as a friend pointed out). It’s available on iTunes if you’re outside the UK.
Well, that’s it for this week. Welcome to the new subscribers, and thank you to people who have bought my book. It just came out in Croatia. Keep spreading the word in 2013.