Obesity – can we change hearts, minds and waistbands?

17th January, 2014 9:02 am

Lord Tebbit, possibly the most charming member of the House of Lords, this week, said that obese people “ought to know that if they stuff themselves silly with high-calorie, rubbish foods they will get fat”. He derided obesity help forums as “nonsense”, and “merely trying to divorce people from the consequences of their own stupid actions”. Health Minister Earl Howe agreed with him. For those that may have forgotten, Lord Tebbit is well known for his sensitivity and thoughtfulness; he contributed to the Equal Marriage debate by saying he would support the measure because it would allow him to marry his own son, thus avoiding inheritance tax.

We are now in National Obesity Awareness Week, so Lord Tebbit’s comments are particularly prescient. A quarter of men and women are now classed as obese, and the National Obesity Forum are expecting more than 50% of the UK will be obese by 2050. Worldwide, obesity has more than doubled since 1980.

Obesity is a complex problem that cannot just be addressed with the overly simplistic “eat less, exercise more” mantra that is wheeled out across the media. Food is emotional, familial, and cultural; far more than just fuel.  In order to make a lasting impact on obesity levels, we need positive policies that change people’s environments and behaviours for good.

It is often overlooked in media reports on weight issues that social inequality is at the heart of the epidemic. The Public Health England report on social and economic inequalities in diet and physical activity published in November last year makes a strong, clear case for this. Access to quality and affordable food, exercise opportunities, and education are all lacking in areas of deprivation; these areas also have a high proportion of overweight and obese residents. And if social inequality is at the root of the cause of obesity, then Labour must respond.

Research from the same report states that people from lower economic backgrounds are proportionately affected by the rise in food costs.  Deprived areas have less access to parks, green space and safe play areas. And lower educational levels have a direct link with diet and physical activity; poorer people tend to eat less healthy diets and be less physically active than the people who are better off. The Low Income Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that those with no educational qualifications were less likely to eat fruit and vegetables and more likely to eat high energy dense foods than those with educational qualifications. And statistics show that among children in reception and year 6, obesity in the 10% most deprived groups is double that in the 10% least deprived.


The most deprived areas across the country also have the highest proportion of fast food outlets. Last year the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges published a report with ten recommendations for tackling obesity; regulating fast food shops close to schools, colleges and leisure centres was a key suggestion. St Helens Council implemented a 400 metre fast food exclusion zone around primary, secondary and sixth form colleges. Local authorities across the country could make a positive impact on the health of young people by doing the same.

But we also need to change our attitudes towards fat people. Bullying Tebbit style is counterproductive; obesity occurs for many reasons, not just because of too many trips to the chip shop. We also need to reassess how we determine what is a healthy size and what is not.  The BMI Index has been proven to be flawed, yet it is still used as a primary measure of “healthy” weight. I know this only too well; I was once a size 24. I am now an 18, a healthy eater with an active lifestyle and a clean bill of health. Yet I’m still classified as obese.  How can a 10 stone couch potato existing on takeaways be considered healthier than I, based solely on the BMI index? We need a more holistic approach to determining health.

We also need to examine issues around obesity, self esteem and mental health. Dr Linda Bacon, nutrition professor in the Biology Department at the City College of San Francisco is the originator of the Health at Every Size movement, and promotes self-acceptance, physical activity and normalised eating as a way to healthy living, no matter what size you are. I’d like to see the forward thinking Health at Every Size philosophy taught in every school. Alongside addressing issues around economic and educational inequalities and regulating fast food joints, we just might be able to change hearts, minds and waistbands.

Value our free and unique service?

LabourList has more readers than ever before - but we need your support. Our dedicated coverage of Labour's policies and personalities, internal debates, selections and elections relies on donations from our readers.

If you can support LabourList’s unique and free service then please click here.

To report anything from the comment section, please e-mail [email protected]
  • JoeDM

    Seems to me that Tebbit was quite right on this, as he is on most things.

    Moderation and taking a responsible approach to one’s life and family without looking for excuses is the way forward.

    • treborc1

      Tebbit is right on most thing yes the problem was on the things he got wrong the people tended to suffer.

      • TomFairfax

        maybe the cycling keeps him fit, or the whinging about the people and customs of those in Bury St Edmunds after he chose to move there and impose on them of hos free choice and not vice versa.

        • treborc1

          Well of course I have a parachuted labour type in my area who though Blair sh*t should be served to the poor, now of course she is a socialist

  • treborc1

    Do you remember Labour, no fast food outlet will be built within five miles of a School, brilliant because McDonald’s aim to build one closer then five Miles. £30 million for schools sport and the whole things was dropped. I then had a new kit given to me which stated FA football coach and in big writing McDolands with the stupid clowns face and I refused to even take it out of the packing, I use to be proud of gaining my FA coaching Badge having the gimmick on it no thanks, and I was told I could not coach anymore and they brought in people who had no coaching badges to take over what a farce they then decided we could wear what we liked.

    But the whole planning requirement was dropped see how cheap it is to buy out a government £30 million.

    I take the whole idea that government are going to tell fat people how to live, yes well they tried it with drunks and drug addicts and failed those who are a bigger issue in hospitals. And how about bed blocking with the elderly because councils have closed all the nursing homes.

    I take all this with a very large heart stopping pinch of salt.

  • Steve Stubbs

    “ought to know that if they stuff themselves silly with high-calorie, rubbish foods they will get fat”

    As a statement of the bleeding obvious, it’s hard to fault. Even if it comes from the Chingford polecat.

    Declaration: I am 67, overweight, probably into the obese category based on BMI, although I exercise at a local gym three times a week using my OAP discount, but I love my food too much.

    This article comes very close to the eternal cry of the apologist “it’s not their fault’ Sorry but mostly it is. To say that those in deprived areas have no access to exercise is total nonsense. Walking, jogging, running and basic exercises of isometrics in your own accommodation costs nothing. It is the will that is missing mostly.

    OK close fast food outlets near schools during the school meal breaks, but why should local residents be prevented from having a KFC or Big Mac outside those times? And is a local Tesco Express selling sandwiches, coke and crisps a fast food outlet? How on earth do you fairly and rationally discriminate?

    Yes BMI is a blunt tool, most rugby forwards in the super league are obese based on that simple ratio, but it does help. Fat people know they are fat, and they mostly know that the ansdwer is also bleeding obvious. But they don’t care enough to take any action.

  • MrSauce

    Oddly enough, everywhere I have lived, the ‘deprived’ areas have far better health / exercise / play facilities provided than the ‘well off’ areas. Although, the facilities in the poorer areas seem to be less used.
    Everyone knows that consuming too many calories and leading a sedentary life will make you fat. There isn’t an educational issue here.
    Fundamentally, it is down to choice. I know from experience that if I ate and drank as much as I like, I would be fat. I have to forego the pleasure of gluttony (and I really do like my food and booze) in order to not be fat. My responsibility, my choice. Same as everyone else.

    • treborc1

      True they build all these playing field in the poor area mind you if they tried to build a leisure center next to a few million quid homes you soon get told.

      Your right every where they get a a council estate you will see a football field or a Rugby field maybe if the rich had a bit more time they might play sport, dam they do they play cricket and golf.

      • TomFairfax

        Not many council rugby pitches east of Offa’s Dike. Certainly not as far east as the midlands. However, you are correct about rich folks tolerating golf courses but not footy pitches with ‘noisy, foul mouthed, thugs’ on them. However, the footy pitch issue is probably an issue for most people near them.

        • treborc1

          Thank god I’m one of the fouled mouth types, I have never ever liked the smooth talking rich, Miliband included.

  • TomFairfax

    Well Amy, I can’t help feeling you didn’t think about this article’s contents after writing it. It very strongly supports the link between low educational attainment, poverty and subsequent health issues.

    So it appears to all be down to education again…
    Given budget limitations, best to choose to spend on the thing likely to give the most return, instead of addressing the symptoms piecemeal and in isolation.

    Frankly the viper, Tebbitt has stated the bleeding obvious, but the real issue is people don’t actually know what is good for them or not, or often accept or understand that too much of a good thing is quite literally that, too much.

    • TomFairfax

      Also, on Radio 4 last night the National Obesity Forum’s announcement this week was exposed as being an opinion piece based on no real data collection and analysis, but somehow still being presented as a fact when real data shows childhood obesity levels peaked in 2005 and are currently on the way down.

    • treborc1

      people know what is going on and what is wrong, but the fact is walking is boring and a gym cost about £30 a month and when you on low wages it cost to much. My swimming pool is closing because of the council cut backs , so is the gym and so are the local parks so maybe we will have some jobs for the people to do and they can lose weight working.

      • TomFairfax

        For the exercise aspect you are correct. But how many people do you know who think something labelled as low fat is somehow healthy but often contains so much sugar as to be the same number of calories.

      • JoeDM

        “Walking is boring” ??????

        Walking is thinking time.

        • treborc1

          Jogging is thinking time running is exercise walking does not get the old heart thumping.

  • Bik Byro

    Waaaaah Waaaahh IT’S NOT MY FAULT !!!!! It’s the government’s fault, it’s my neighbour’s fault, the reason I am fat is anybody’s fault except mine !!!!

    • treborc1

      Well the fat people are not the ones moaning, I did not see Pickles and the many others in government saying much.

      But it looks and sound great for the billions earned by companies selling meals or diets or a remedy for being over weight.

      Maybe if they had some fecking jobs which you could do they be thin again.

  • EricBC

    You say: ”Access to quality and affordable food, exercise opportunities, and education are all lacking in areas of deprivation.”

    That is not true. I live in a poor area. There is NO local shortage of vegetables in the local Co-op. In fact they cannot sell the ones they have on display as demand is so low. Many do not know how to cook and many others do but can’t be bothered.

    Lack of exercise opportunities. Have you heard of this place called ”the outside”? When I go out walking in the evening the streets are deserted. No-one is stopping folk going for a walk. Local parks are mostly empty.

    Education opportunities are lacking, you say. There are places called schools. The main problem these schools face is non-stop non-compliance which makes effective teaching almost impossible. Kids are moody, angry, depressive and excitable. No doubt their rubbish diet contributes to their poor behaviour.

    Many people are ignorant and/or lazy. Playing the blame game – it is always the fault of others – just does not work for me. Last week I was buying vegetables and the person in front me spent £6 on bars of chocolate junk because they were on special. With £6 I can make around twelve portions of vegetable soup.

    We need to place a high tax on sugar and have strict regulations concerning fat, sugar and salt content. Cooking should be taught to everybody at school and students should cook their own lunch on a regular basis.

    • treborc1

      I’m not surprise the local Coop has a lot of food left over it’s one of the most expensive shops in the country, get a better deal with some of the Asian shops and they are expensive.

      The issue is do people working ten or twelve hours a day to bring home enough, have the time to cook and clean, not hard really to see how the middle class can do it one of the couple may work both may work but then they have somebody to look after the kids.

      I look out of my housing association window and what I see are the return of the latch key children.
      The fact is poor pay long hours has never been great for the kids, it would be nice if we could go on holiday once or twice a year and I mean on a plane to somewhere warm not Butlins.

      The fact is the people your moaning about are the people who once work hard played hard and loved life sadly it was normally a short life after a life time down pits lad, but hard work in this country normal means low pay, at least the Tories can see it they have given the poorest a nice £1 an hour extra god what will they do with £200 a week..

      Socialist have changed from my day

      • Quiet_Sceptic

        You can’t draw blanket conclusions about how much free time people have ie. middle class have time, working class don’t. Lots of middle class people work long hours or have long commutes, equally you’ll find people on low incomes with more free time – those unemployed or underemployed.

        Besides, even if you’re short of time and tired after work you can still eat healthily, put a veg. casserole in the slow cooker, prep the ingredients the evening before. It isn’t difficult.


LabourList Daily Email

Everything Labour. Every weekday morning

Share with your friends