Anna Burnside: Food industry tempts us to stray

Almost one third of British women under-20 and a fifth of men are obese yet the food industry looks only to cash in by promoting unhealthy products. Photograph: Alamy
Almost one third of British women under-20 and a fifth of men are obese yet the food industry looks only to cash in by promoting unhealthy products. Photograph: Alamy
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BAD news from the European­ Congress on Obesity in Sofia last week: 10 per cent of low fat foods have the same number of calories, or more, than the regular versions. Make that more bad news: it also emerged that British girls are the fattest in Europe, with boys not very far behind.

Nearly 30 per cent of British women aged under-20 are overweight or obese, as well as 26 per cent of boys. The grown-ups are doing no better, with two thirds of adult men and 57 per cent of women classified as fat. And these are not tiny survey results produced by the backstreet manufacturers of “slimming tea”. These ­figures are from the Institute for Health ­Metrics and Evaluation in Washington, published in the Lancet.

Men are far from immune from body-image propaganda but it is largely women – bombarded by un­realistic magazine covers, fatuous ­bikini-body tips and a general culture that equates fat with shame – who buy low-fat products and the other gizmos and snake oil smoothies produced by the diet industry. An industry predicated on the fact that most diets do not, in the long run, work. The former finance director of Weight Watchers admitted as much on the fantastic BBC documentary the Men Who Made Us Thin. He said that the company had the perfect business model, because its customers were doomed to fail. Its classes and nasty tinned soups might be effective short-term but as soon as people reverted to their old eating habits, they would be back.

It is clever and cynical enough to make you weep. There are low-fat products. Some 90 per cent of these do have fewer calories than the regular versions, but contain a chemistry set of weird ingredients to make them edible. One in ten contains so much sugar to compensate for the lack of fat that it has the same number, or more, calories than the regular ­version. They tend to cost more than the regular versions and come in branded packaging that marks the purchaser out as a big old heifer. They taste as sweet, or rubbery, or as chemical as the long list of unfamiliar ingredients would suggest.

People buy these muffins, or yog­hurts, or cheese. Sometimes they eat the whole packet believing that, being low fat, they will magically bypass their hips. This does not happen. They are disappointed and return to eating the regular version. Until the next body crisis. Or they continue to attend slimming classes and buy the bouncy cheddar, plus magazines, DVDs, books, herbal tablets, funny shorts that overheat your bottom while you are running and machines that shake you up and down like a granny’s spin dryer.

Either way, the nation is not getting any thinner. As the Lancet figures show, we are getting fatter, the companies selling low-fat hot chocolate are getting richer, and all the while, the joy is getting sucked out of food altogether. We have lost the ability to have a sensible, functional, enjoyable relationship with what is on our plates and become sucked in to a ­toxic, expensive, damaging cycle of binge or black coffee. This is mentally and physically unhealthy – as well as extremely boring for everyone else in the room.

Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I once had the joyous experience of discussing this with Antonio ­Carluccio, who looked me in the eye and reminded me that eating was the only pleasure everyone did three times a day. I was six months’ pregnant at the time. Beside him I looked so dainty that he did not even notice. He was quite taken aback when I mentioned it.

He was talking about hand-picked mushrooms and his mother’s veal ­ragout, but the point stands. The ­reason obesity has become a problem ­associated with poverty is that, when life is grim beyond belief, the enormous slab of chocolate or munchy box from the kebab shop can be the only sweet moment of the day. ­Processed carbohydrates are cheap, comforting and readily available every­where from the corner shop to the all-night garage. They are also easy. One reason the weasels of the food industry can get away with, for example, making light and crunchy breaded chicken with more calories than crispy chicken (that would be you, Captain Birdseye) is that so many people don’t know how to cook for themselves. It is easy to get all Gwyneth Paltrow and prescribe venison burgers, sweet potato wedges and quinoa pilafs with crispy kale on top. It is impossible to make these things when you have a minuscule budget, a grotty, ill-equipped kitchen and hungry children who want to know when their macaroni cheese will be ready.

If there was an easy answer, the problem would not exist. The food manufacturers are resisting every ­attempt to call them to account, whether it’s to introduce a clear and consistent form of package labelling or restricting advertising of the monstrously unhealthy processed products to children. (For obvious reasons, there is very little profit in nutritious, fat-free kale.) The rest of us are left stranded in whale-land, taunted for our physical imperfections then ­offered an expensive, borderline mendacious solution that even its manufacturers admit that, in the long term, does not work.

That leaves a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. «

Twitter: @MsABurnside