“Parents are putting their own children at risk because they can’t spot when they’re FAT,” ran the Mirror’s headline.[1] Yahoo News followed suit, blaming “lax” parenting for “normalising” obesity.[2] ITV claimed that “Parents [are] ‘normalising’ obesity in children through poor diet and little activity.”[3] All of these headlines have a common theme: they all place the blame for childhood obesity squarely on the shoulders of individual parents.

It’s a common attitude. Obesity, we have been told for years, is the fault of individuals. In 2008, David Cameron called on the obese to shoulder the blame for their condition. To do otherwise, he suggested, would mean “a denial of personal responsibility and the concept of a moral choice”:

“We talk about people being at risk of obesity instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it’s as if these things – obesity, alcohol, drug addiction – are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.”[4]

Seven years later, and his attitude hasn’t softened. Stripping the obese of their benefits if they fail to lose weight was described by Cameron as a “personal priority.”[5] Guardian journalist Zoe Williams described such policies as having “neither basis nor justifiable purpose, beyond the manufacture of shame and hatred.”[6]

Last December, an article published in the Telegraph that European rulings that obesity can be considered a disability “runs counter to the British traditions of light-touch regulation and encouraging personal responsibility for one’s lifestyle.”[7]

In 2011, journalist Harry Mount echoed these sentiments, deploring the fact that “in our mad, Government-dependent world, special interests insist that politicians must intervene between a man and his cream cake. Have we really lost our free will to this extent?”[8]

Obesity, personal responsibility
Healthy food versus unhealthy food: the two are often presented as a simple binary. But the economic and political reality of obesity and type 2 diabetes make dietary decisions anything but straightforward.

This attitude extends to people with type 2 diabetes, who are – wrongly – seen to have caused their own condition through self-indulgent, ill-disciplined lifestyles (in fact, type 2 diabetes can have several causes, many of which have nothing to do with being overweight, although obesity is a common risk factor). It is branded “the disease of poor, fat, old, lazy people who can’t be bothered to take care of themselves.”[9]

Not that people should necessarily be discouraged from taking personal responsibility for obesity and type 2 diabetes – to do so is often empowering. And certainly, taking it upon yourself to lose weight or change your diet will definitely be beneficial. The problem is the rhetoric that suggests obesity and type 2 diabetes are only the responsibility of the individual affected, ignoring a number of complex political and economic causes.

Harry Mount doesn’t worry himself with such complexities. It’s a choice, he argues – so make healthier choices: “Is there anyone in the country over the age of five, who doesn’t know what foods are bad for you?” The fact is, most of us know very little about what’s actually in our food. In March, Action on Sugar surveyed the sugar content of various cereals, and found that some – particularly own-brands from cheaper supermarkets, tellingly – contained as much as 39g of sugar per 100g of cereal. Two years ago, the same cereal contained only 33g. The problem is getting worse.

Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of Action on Sugar, knew what was to blame:

“One of the greatest failures in tackling Britain’s obesity epidemic is the government’s appeasement of the food industry; we cannot allow this to go on any longer. The so-called ‘Responsibility Deal,’ which allows the food industry to regulate themselves (likened to ‘Dracula being put in control of the blood bank’) has clearly failed. It’s time for it to be scrapped.”

The problem is the rhetoric that suggests obesity and type 2 diabetes are only the responsibility of the individual affected, ignoring a number of complex political and economic causes

The “responsibility deal” Macgregor references is a controversial idea developed in 2011 by then-health secretary Andrew Lansley. The idea is that the government asks food producers to act more ethically. There are no sanctions should they choose not to.

Unsurprisingly, the policy hasn’t been successful. A government-funded study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) found that the deal “is unlikely to have much effect on nutrition-related health in England…the act of signing up to the [responsibility deal] motivated few organisations to implement such interventions.”[10]

obesity, diet
Pictures of the obese are often ‘testament to the fact that we’re all becoming worse as people – lazier, greedier, more antisocial,’ which is both untrue and unhelpful.

Moreover, little is done to mitigate the effects of aggressive junk food marketing. “The 21st Century Gingerbread House,” a report by the British Heart Foundatio, uncovered the “panoply of techniques to promote brands and products – techniques which many children will find difficult to identify as advertising.”[11] The techniques included using children in adverts, using cartoon characters, using celebrities, creating competitions and games, and offering free prizes. After analysing 100 websites of “unhealthy” food manufacturers, the report found “clear evidence of [high fat, sugar, salt] products being heavily marketed to children online, with websites employing a variety of techniques to increase their appeal to a young audience.”

The criticism was echoed in a series of six papers in the Lancet medical journal, the authors of which wrote: “The food industry has a special interest in targeting children. Not only can the companies influence children’s immediate dietary preferences, but they can also benefit from building taste preferences and brand loyalty early in life, which last into adulthood.”[12] But none of this is good enough for the Mirror, which still thinks it’s the parents’ fault.

Admittedly, the advertising of unhealthy food isn’t entirely unregulated. The Advertising Standards Authority prohibits the promotion of particularly unhealthy foods during the broadcast of programmes specifically aimed at young children. In their 2015 manifesto, the Liberal Democrats stated a desire to be even stricter with the marketing of unhealthy food, banning all such advertisements pre-watershed.[13]

But very little has actually been achieved. To quote David Haslam, chair of the National Obesity Forum, the government has been “frankly useless.” Food companies are still permitted to put however much sugar and salt they want in their food. Having done so, they’re perfectly entitled to spend massive amounts of money encouraging you to buy it. And when you do, some of the richest and most powerful people in the country will tell you that it’s your fault for choosing it. If eating this stuff is so destructive, so devastating to the whole natio, why isn’t more being done?

The fact is, many people couldn’t afford to eat well if they wanted to. The profits of McDonald’s may be falling[14], but a recent study by the Overseas Development Institute – a London-based think tank – found that processed food is getting cheaper, while fruit and vegetables are becoming more expensive.[15] Since 1990, the price of fruit and vegetables has increased by 91 per cent in many parts of the world. At the same time, the price of ready meals has falle, in some places by as much as 20 per cent. People simply cannot afford to eat more healthily.

If eating this stuff is so destructive, so devastating to the whole natio, why isn’t more being done?

Not that the link between socioeconomic background and exposure to unhealthy foods in anything new. In 2008, a study published in Health Place found that “Low wealth, renter-occupied, and lone parent neighbourhoods had greater exposure to fast food outlets […] the implications are troubling for fast food consumption among lone parent families in light of growing obesity rates among children.”[16]

This isn’t to suggest that rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes aren’t hugely problematic. We all know that they are. But the current mode of rhetoric has done and will continue to do nothing to make things better. Demonising the victims of a bloated and unregulated industry merely avoids any moral obligation to really address the crisis.

So how should the obesity and type 2 diabetes be prevented? Certainly, not through expecting people to “have more self-control.” Neither are “educational programmes” effective, at least for the most part, because encouraging people to eat vegetables is still at odds with the unimpeded waves of marketing telling you to eat the bad stuff, which is much cheaper.

Demonising the victims of a bloated and unregulated industry merely avoids any moral obligation to really address the crisis

Perhaps the lack of effective policy governing the behaviour of food companies really does stem from a principled commitment to the idea of personality responsibility. But it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to suggest that it doesn’t. Rather, it might be that presenting obesity as “a sign that of personal failure […] testament to the fact that we’re all becoming worse as people – lazier, greedier, more antisocial” negates the government’s responsibility to do anything about it.

As long as the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of the victim, the massively profitable processed food market can chug along unabated. If the rhetoric was more sympathetic, more understanding of how junk food consumption is largely dictated by economic circumstance and the growth of a dangerous, unfettered industry, people might begin to wonder why it’s allowed to continue.

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