Blog: Muddy waters on obesity

Catherine Sleep | 28 January 2004

The public obesity debate last night proved to be one of those irritating evenings where absolutely everyone comes out with exactly the argument you could have predicted they would, and no consensus is reached beyond platitudes such as “we must all work together,” “yes, child health is important” and “more information is a good thing”.

Most participants agreed that the problem underlying the so-called “obesity epidemic” we face was not universal ignorance of which foods are healthy and which are not, but widespread difficulty in making the right choices. Fresh-faced, eloquent but understandably naïve “youth activist” Kierra Box, 18, suggested rebranding the lower fat/sugar/salt versions of processed foods as the “conventional” product, while slapping a label on the hitherto conventional variety indicating that it should henceforth be considered the “Gonna make you fat” variety. Ah, bless.

Nutrition Scientist Dr Susan Jebbs was all for bold action, as currently the diet of the nation’s children is so far away from healthy that it is essential that drastic measures are undertaken right now. 85% of kids eat more than the recommended daily intake of sugar, she pointed out.

Whether this action should take the form of banning the endorsement of foods of minimal nutritional benefit by sport celebrities, banning the inclusion of toys in food products, or a snack tax, or the introduction of an advertising watershed, or clearer labelling, or a combination of the above, will be a matter of intense debate over coming months and years.

Richard D. North, media fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, was against any kind of government intervention, arguing that obesity is parents’ and kids’ fault, they should accept it, take responsibility for their own diets and stop passing the buck. Any kind of “Nanny State” intervention would be to infantilise people. Not sure I agree with that – it irks me when people brand any sensible suggestion for helping and educating people as something only a Nanny State would do.

And if I had a pound for every time I heard that old chestnut about there being “no such thing as unhealthy food, just unhealthy diets” one more time, I’d be a rich woman.

The debate highlighted public ignorance of how advertising works, a useful reminder for both government and industry. Several members of the public questioned why the advertising industry didn't use its proven expertise at flogging stuff to improve the reputation and penetration of healthier products, such as fruit and veg? Um, because advertising agencies work for clients who pay them. Obvious to me, and to you no doubt too, but not, evidently, to everyone.

The most succinct contributions came from the floor, not the podium. Kath Dalmeny of the Food Commission argued that, whichever way you look at it, a yoghurt pot marketed at toddlers that contains 80% of a child’s recommended daily sugar intake is plain wrong. Few would argue with that.


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