Belfast Telegraph

Obesity scare... we're in middle of a moral panic

By Fionola Meredith

The kids are too fat and we've got to take action – fast. It's an epidemic, a time bomb, they're out of control, stuffing themselves like oven-ready turkeys, cramming their greedy little gubs full of so much crisps and chips and cola that they're sure to explode before they reach adulthood.

What's the answer? Padlock the fridge? Wire their jaws shut? Book them in for pre-school stomach-stapling? Because if we don't stop them now, they'll kill us all – if not by bankrupting the health service with their monster health problems, then simply by squeezing the rest of us to death because of their gargantuan size. At this rate, there soon will be no more standing room on the planet.

This is what a moral panic looks like. And we're bang-slap in the middle of one right now. Obesity, especially childhood obesity: we are obsessed with it. Who's fat, why are they fat, who's to blame, and what are we going to do about it?

It brings out the very worst in us: we look at fat people with mingled suspicion and disgust, because we're scared of them. We're scared that this could be us, this time next year, if we don't monitor our every bite for excess calorific intake.

It makes us superstitious, too. Because, if fatness is an epidemic, as we're constantly told, then fatness must be contagious, mustn't it? You can catch it, like flu.

It's lurking about in the atmosphere, like the evaporated beef dripping that hangs in the air of chip shops, and if you breathe it in, it travels straight to your gut, instantly piling on the lard.

You have got to take responsibility for the size of your own body, screams the health lobby (aka the food police) and, if you don't, we – with the Government's help – will take it for you: ban sugar, tax orange juice, make schools weigh children every year and if they've porked out too much send them to compulsory boot camp, where they'll have their evil piggy ways sweated out of them by a retired SAS man dressed up as Mr Incredible.

A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but surely it's only a matter of time. You do not have the right to be unhealthy, bark the health fascists. You will be forced to be healthy, for your own good, and for the good of the state. Jawohl, mein Fuhrer.

Look, there's no doubt we are actually getting fatter. I'm not denying that. And, yes, it is especially worrying when children are affected, because excess pounds, once acquired in childhood, can be especially hard to lose.

This week, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) reported that nearly 20% of children in Northern Ireland are now overweight, or obese, before they start primary school.

But it's vital that we keep a cool head on the issue and don't turn it into the modern equivalent of a medieval witch-hunt, charging round looking for somebody to blame.

Like poorer parents, for instance. Poorer mothers, in particular. They often get the accusatory finger pointed in their faces.

There's a smug assumption that these are the people causing the problem, blithely shovelling hydrogenated fat into the eager mouths of their offspring, failing to notice, or care, that they can't see out of their eyes any more because their cheeks – along with the rest of them – have inflated so much.

Some are doing exactly that, of course. (Though an awful lot are not.) But so are plenty of better-off parents, stacking the supermarket trolley up with expensive ready meals and pizzas, bursting with salt and fat and sugar – the addictive triumvirate that virtually guarantees weight-gain – because they don't have the time or the inclination to cook a proper meal for their children.

The RCPCH is calling for key public messages about healthy eating to be sent out, with poorer families being singled out for particular "support".

"We cannot forget any one group, but we should try and support those from low-income backgrounds, in terms of making clear that you can get healthier foods within the budget you have available," says the group's president, Dr Hilary Cass.

Worthy and well-intentioned sentiments, Dr Hilary. But if we really want to get the obesity crisis licked, we'll have to do better than witless scare-mongering, or patronising poor people and treating them like they can't tell the difference between a chicken nugget and a carrot.

Belfast Telegraph


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