I collected my son from school last Saturday and, as a treat, took him and his two brothers to a TGI Friday’s. My eldest boy and I had a beer, while the younger two had massive colas, which were refilled without asking.
We then embarked on the kind of meal that would give the Government’s nutritional nanny, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), palpitations. After a shared plate of chicken wings, potato skins, fried cheesy bits and – incongruously – celery, the eight-year-old had meatballs and pasta; the 13-year-old had a cheeseburger and the big boy had something called The Ultimate Burger, which needed a small fence-post hammering through it to hold it together. Afterwards, they polished off something called an Outrageous, a sundae concoction consisting of chocolate ice-cream, cake, cream and sticky sauces. I nursed a cappuccino and hoped they weren’t sick.
They weren’t, of course, and I thought of my father, brought up in the austerity of the Twenties and Thirties and how he would have enjoyed seeing his grandsons eat like this. Yet this is precisely the kind of fare that the FSA wants to dissuade my sons from eating, while educating them – at the taxpayers’ expense -Âinto a desire for carrots and apples.
The FSA’s redoubtable chairman, Professor Sir John Krebs, claimed last week, as the Parliamentary Health Select Committee convened to examine childhood obesity, that we’re facing a “public health timebomb”, which will explode in the prospect of our children having a lower life expectancy than the generation that produced them.
The FSA consequently demands that food ads aimed at pre-school children are banned and that quotas for all food advertising in children’s programming are introduced; that celebrities are banned from advertising snack foods and that the Government introduce a “fat tax” on fast-food commercials.
I have to say that I was the fattest person at our table at TGI Friday’s. But I accept that my boys have a richly varied diet, with lots of fruit and vegetables, and pursue various sporting endeavours through their schools.
We are, more typically, breeding a future of fatties. The question is what we do about it. The FSA is clear that prohibitive legislation is needed. Nonsense, claim the libertarians – the problem is not too much fatty food, but too little exercise.
Furthermore, childhood obesity isn’t a Government responsibility, but a parental one. And television advertising is less about hamburgers than red herrings – three times as many children watch Coronation Street, apparently, than watch the leading children’s programmes.
I particularly like research from Spiked, the online magazine, which shows that, while 35 per cent of respondents surveyed cited lack of parental control over children’s diets as the greatest factor contributing to childhood obesity and 32 per cent blamed the growth in sedentary activities such as television and computer games, nobody opted for the response “lack of Government information about nutrition”. Not one.
We should also note that only six per cent of those surveyed said that eating advice should be the Government’s greatest priority in protecting children’s health. Only five per cent said it should be banning food advertising to children.
Meanwhile, a thumping 33 per cent would prioritise reduction of child poverty and 21 per cent thought immunisation programmes were the most important. But these are tough issues for the Government – banning Gary Lineker from advertising crisps is easier.
And that, in turn, makes life a lot easier for the FSA, whose great raison d’ÃÂªtre must be to tell the Government what it wants to hear. Its other motivation is a classic one – it hates multinational food companies and will do what it can to inconvenience them.
I much prefer the work of Professor Stanley Feldman in this area than that of his peer, Krebs, at the FSA. Feldman points out that, while some foods are more nutritious or taste better than others, all food is good food – the only bad food is food that has gone bad.
So obesity is not down to one type of food, or to brands of food, however much the FSA might disapprove of them. As it happens, water is the only real junk “food”, defined as containing no nutritional value.
As to the addiction that allegedly results from endorphins being released from popular foods, Feldman points out that sex, sunshine and laughing release such endorphins, but we’re not banning them. Not yet, anyway.
And note that, while the FSA rails at fast-food and snack suppliers, it has nothing to say about traditional fish and chips, curry houses, greasy-spoon fried breakfasts or meals on sink estates consisting entirely of jam sandwiches.
No, what the FSA hates is the thought of my family lunch at TGI Friday’s (proprietor: Carlson Worldwide Restaurants of Dallas, Texas) and it will use any stick, fear of obesity included, to beat the suppliers of this sort of food.
It’s a kind of globophobia, which refuses to acknowledge that we eat well in a generally robust Western economy and simply need to take more exercise.
One feels that the FSA would welcome a collapse in the world economy, which would not only take the likes of TGI Friday’s with it, but would also return us to the good old ways – the gaunt and sallow faces of Jarrow marchers, rickets and children without the energy to exercise at all.
George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon