A poor understanding of obesity as a wealth issue

As the middle classes turn to Atkins, retailers are blamed for the UK’s obesity ‘epidemic’. But why are only poor people getting fatter? asks George Pitcher

My octogenarian Italian uncle-in-law ascribes his healthy longevity to the three Ps – “pasta, patate e pane”. There is, apparently, far less obesity in Mediterranean countries than in northern Europe, but we are nevertheless far more likely to be in the grip of the starch-free Atkins’ Diet and other gluten-lite fads.

So the days of the sandwich look numbered. It is said to have been invented in 1762 by John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich, as sustenance that he could take without having to leave the gaming tables.

I’ve always been suspicious of these stories that ascribe great commercial initiatives to the old aristocracy, rather than to their canny servants. The nobs never consummated a relationship with invention’s mother, necessity.

But anyway, the humble sandwich is doomed – at least according to high street bakery chain Greggs, which despite its gloomy outlook for sarnies reported a healthy 10.4 per cent rise in pre-tax profits, to &£40.5m, last year.

In fairness, Greggs doesn’t actually say the sandwich market is finished, but that it is slowing down after years of expansion, partly because of those protein-only diet crazes and partly because of competition from the supermarket chains and other new rivals, such as Subway.

Dietary habits seem to prescribe a trend towards prepared salads and it is no coincidence that this week McDonald’s launched its Salads Plus range, to widen the choice from its core menu, where the sandwich predominates.

Meanwhile, Pret A Manger, which turned the sandwich into a bourgeois fashion accessory, claims that the UK convenience-food market is growing increasingly sophisticated, as customers acquire a greater understanding of what they are eating.

There is, in other words, a demand-led transition in convenience eating. That is not of itself remarkable. Presumably the sandwich’s development has been led by a steadily more demanding market since the days of peckish aristocrats with a gambling habit.

What is more remarkable is that this shift in British eating habits should be ascribed to pressure on retailers to do something about obesity in the UK. Last weekend, the Observer even called it an “obesity epidemic”.

It is now quite common for politicians, regulators and commentators to talk of an obesity crisis. A Parliamentary Select Committee calls witnesses about it. The Department of Health is highly exercised about it. We are told that our children may be the first in generations to live, on average, less long than their parents.

At the risk of playing the innocent who sees through the emperor’s new jogging suit, I have to ask: where are these fat people? I’ll be the first to admit I’m not built like a Japanese racing snake and should take more exercise. But I’m not clinically obese.

And, when I’m out in the city, I don’t see that many people bigger than me. A few whoppers, maybe, but no more than I used to see on the street at university 30 years ago, when we thought a pint of milk and a bread roll for lunch, with a chip butty for dinner, was wholesome fare.

Look around you in restaurants, fast-food outlets and pubs. Is space really at a premium because the kind of fatties we are shown on documentaries about Texas are – in every possible sense – spreading over here? My experience is that there is no obvious explosion of fatty tissues.

But I can be accused of a complacency rooted in regionalism. I live and work principally in London. And this is not really a Southern issue.

The other day, data analyst Experian published a survey of the UK’s fattest and slimmest areas, based on hospital admissions for type-2 diabetes. Kingston-upon-Hull was the fattest; Kingston-upon-Thames the slimmest. The obesity hotspots form a litany of Northern areas – Merseyside, Lancashire, Cheshire and so on. The slim areas are in London, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire. There is a clear North-South divide on obesity and, in the absence of any offered explanations, we’re entitled to ask why.

The answers aren’t hard to find. Obesity attaches itself to areas of economic and educational deprivation, where very low dietary standards apply and where cheap, starchy snacks – crisps, chips, frozen TV dinners – substitute for contentment. In the Earl of Sandwich’s day, obesity was a sign of prosperity – today it’s a badge of poverty.

Why are these truths not addressed? Perhaps it’s because they would reveal that obesity is an economic, social and political issue. And it is easier for politicians, health officials and regulators to blame food retailers than to address the problems themselves.

It’s especially difficult for a government whose top priorities are social inclusion and education to accept that it presides over an economic underclass that is killing itself in a prosperous economy through poor diet.

The obesity issue raises concerns about diet among the relatively well-off, who have the means to respond. Retailers, in turn, respond to their changing tastes. But let no one suggest that retailers, rather than social and economic deprivation, are responsible for obesity.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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