We at LSS welcome UK Government initiative on the national obesity crisis. Partly their action is due to worries about coronavirus and the Prime Minister’s own terrifying experiences. And partly it addresses a national shame which has been growing since at least the nineteen-eighties of the last century. There’s to be a whole range of new ideas from encouraging cycling to reducing adverts on unhealthy foods, and our link for your jump-off today comes from the Guardian*, although all the outlets covered well. So-three hearty cheers?
“Not quite, my Lord” as the character Baldric put it in the old historical drama series Blackadder II. Weight policies are like a three legged kitchen stool. Leg one: more exercise. (Hooray) Leg two-less junk food. (Hooray) Leg three: less inequality. Not much in the package about that. What happens to kitchen stools with only two legs?
So-what has inequality got to do with it? Astute readers will recall the ground breaking work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level .* It was a major study of income inequality and how it relates to poor social outcomes across the thirty richest countries in the world. Not even its enemies could deny its rigour and scope. They found that a slew of major social evils came back again and again to the level of relative income inequality, including teenage pregnancy, stress, social mobility, mental illness, life expectancy-and of course obesity.
Since roughly 1985, the poor have been getting fatter and the rich thinner in high inequality societies like the UK and the USA. They found that absolute levels of fat increase too. In the USA 30% of the population were obese, but in more equal Japan, it was only 2.4%. Sumo fans take note. The causes are multifarious; among them we find that stressed people lay down more fat. Comfort eating, especially tasty foods like take-aways, seems to be a consolation for long hours on low pay. In some areas, guzzling on things like pizzas and fizzy drinks shows you have a spare income-it’s a perverse status symbol. But look for yourselves gentle readers; one thing about these two, they do write an easy reader.
And so we say: two cheers to the Prime Minister for the new initiative. But unless something is done about inequality, we fear that the policy could be doomed to failure.
Wilkinson, R and Pickett, K: The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone Penguin 2010 pp 89 et seq
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