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Should politicians be telling us what to eat?

Is the UK government’s latest initiative to tackle obesity as likely to fail as most diets do, asks Laura Marcus

Why do diets fail? Why do most people who really want to lose weight nearly always end up putting it all back on again – and often with a bit more just for luck?

I speak from bitter experience. From years of promising myself that this time will be different, this time I’ll take the weight off and keep it off. I’m currently on a weight-loss regime aiming to get down to the right BMI (Body Mass Index) for my height, age and sex. I may get there. But I’ve been there before. And I cannot say with hand on my heart this time I’ll stay there. Because in my entire adult life I have never managed to do that. I’ve always ended up putting the weight back on.

I could make all kinds of excuses. I love my food too much. I can’t fight my body forever. I’m weak. I’m basically just a pig! They’re all true and valid. Sure we can lose weight while dieting, but few dieters keep it off long term. If they could, the bloated diet industry wouldn’t be worth billions of pounds.

The government has launched yet another initiative to try to help people lose weight. It’s an NHS Digital Weight Management Programme backed by £12 million of government funding that will offer free online support via GP and primary care team referrals for adults living with obesity, who also have a diagnosis of either diabetes, high blood pressure or both, to help manage their weight and improve their health.

In most areas, services will include 12-week sessions, with dietary advice, physical activity guidance and support to help people start and maintain healthier habits.

It is part of the government’s “world-leading obesity strategy and levelling up agenda ahead of the launch of the new Office for Health Promotion (OHP).”

Everything promised by our government seems to use that term “world leading”. Track and Trace is the most obvious recent one. But promises are so easy to make, much harder to keep.

Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the restaurant chain Leon, was appointed by the government to review Britain’s food system and find a new strategy. Helpfully, Dimbleby has himself struggled with his weight. Last year he told The Guardian: “I wouldn’t recommend any diets that I have used. My weight oscillates between the high end of healthy weight and the low end of obese, and it is a conscious struggle. We have been putting on weight since the 50s so our will power hasn’t had a sudden collapse, we’ve just gradually put on weight consistently since the 50s, and I think it’s for us to lose weight but the government can make it much easier. We have a tendency to want to eat foods that are high in fat and sugar and those foods are everywhere and marketed at us.”

Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy has been endorsed by some of the leading experts on nutrition and food science as well as top chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Prue Leith, Yotam Ottolenghi and Tom Kerridge. It calls for an entire rethink about food supply chains and, if implemented, could see as big a change in how our nation is fed as the Second World War did.

In his report Dimbleby sets out his strategic objectives:

  • Escape the junk food cycle to protect the NHS
  • Reduce diet-related inequality
  • Make the best use of our land
  • Create a long-term shift in our food culture

He also recommends that cooking is taught in schools again, the provision of free school meals is greatly increased to include more low-income families and vouchers for fruit and vegetables are given to those struggling the most to feed themselves and their families. It’s a hugely ambitious plan, holistic in its approach looking at land use, climate change, carbon emissions and inequality.

Will any of this ever be implemented though? There are many precedents for governments deciding they must act on the health of the nation. During the Boer War of 1899 to 1902, many British men volunteered to join the Army, often just so they could get something to eat. But it was discovered that one third of volunteers were unfit due to poor diet resulting from poverty. Government reports published in 1904 stated free school meals and medical examinations should be introduced in Britain to combat the poor physical condition of many British citizens. The liberal Governments of 1906 and 1910 then introduced welfare reforms including pensions, sickness and unemployment benefits.

However, these reforms hadn’t had a chance to show any difference when in 1917, of the two and a half million men called up to fight in the First World War, over one and a half million were deemed physically unfit for full military duty. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that a government came into power seriously determined to improve the health of the nation.

Ironically, governments now seek to get us to eat less, not more! Will Dimbleby’s wonderfully-ambitious plans ever come to anything? Tory governments don’t philosophically believe in interference in personal choice, while at the same time recognising and accepting that obesity is a public health issue. So inevitably we get mixed messages. Yes we should lose weight says our rotund prime minister Boris Johnson, a man who clearly loves his food and looks to me to bear all the hallmarks of a carb-loading anxiety eater (takes one to know one, Prime Minister!). I think he believes we should lose weight and that he should lose weight. But Johnson believes a lot of things over which he fails to actually do anything. On the day Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy was released, Johnson said he wasn’t minded to introduce a tax on sugar and salt formulations in food – one of the key recommendations.

I’m sure government ministers and MPs on all sides do genuinely want to help. I’ve yet to be convinced there is the will to do so. Talk is cheap. Action costs money. I’ve heard it all before. And look at the furore from some Tory backbenchers over mask wearing and lockdown to prevent Covid spread. Could Johnson ever get even some of Dimbleby’s recommendations through the Commons?

It’s often during a health crisis that governments finally face the need for state action. It happened during the cholera epidemic in the early part of the nineteenth century. It happened when the need for healthy soldiers couldn’t be met due to poverty. A determination that we’d be healthier after the Second World War is why the welfare state was introduced by the Labour government.

Some government action is already working. When the government sent out a clear message that obesity makes you much less likely to survive Covid if you catch it, that was my wake-up call. It shocked me into action. I now write a weekly free-to-subscribe Substack newsletter Laura’s Weight Loss Tips on how this finally put me on the path to achieving and, I hope, maintaining a healthy weight. Similarly pictures of cancerous lungs probably helped a fair few people give up smoking! So shock tactics can be one plank of a plan to help people lose weight.

Obesity can cause Diabetes Type 2 which if left uncontrolled can result in limb amputation, blindness and premature death. Being overweight can cause strokes, heart disease and even some cancers. Hips and knees may need to be replaced from carrying too much weight. And the more people who need these operations, the longer the waiting list grows.

Obesity shortens your life and the quality of your life. There’s no shortage of reasons to lose weight. But alas human behaviour isn’t always governed by reason. We know what we need to do. We know what the government needs to do. But knowing and doing are not always well acquainted.

I think the government should implement Henry Dimbleby’s plan. I’m not optimistic it will but I hope I’m proved wrong. The proof of the pudding is whether we stop eating it.

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Laura Marcus

Laura Marcus is a freelance journalist and broadcaster.

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