Media fearmongering on food
With so many scare stories about which foods
are bad for us, it seems that every mouthful of food is now
accompanied by a slight twinge of anxiety...
Obesity has risen by almost 400% in 25 years according to
a report from the Commons health select committee.
The national growth in waistlines could, we're told, have
the following consequences1:
"Children will die
before their parents"
"Amputees will become familiar in Britain's streets"
"There will be a huge demand for kidney dialysis"
"There will be many more blind people"
The media lapped this up, of course it's instant headline
material. In fact, there's been an alarming rise in gratuitous
health-scare headlines over the past twelve months. For example:
"Scottish farmed salmon
is full of cancer toxins"2
"What's in your dinner? PCBs, dioxins, pesticides"3
"Bird flu could be worse than Sars"4
"Coffee drinking linked to higher miscarriage
"Official: Atkins diet can be deadly"6
It's the same old scaremongering. The obesity scare fits
the definition of "moral panic" given by sociologist
Stanley Cohen in 1972: "A condition ... emerges to
become defined as a threat to societal values and interests;
its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion
by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors,
bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially
accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions".
You'd assume there's good scientific evidence that weight
loss is medically beneficial. But according to Paul Campos
(author of The Obesity Myth), there's no such evidence.
It's true that severe obesity has been correlated with ill
health, but it doesn't automatically follow that losing weight
is good for everyone defined as "overweight". Steven
Milloy, of JunkScience.com, claims that "reported
correlations between overweight/obesity and premature death
don't inspire even minimal confidence until the obesity in
question is extreme".
Government-approved body weight
Your BMI (Body Mass Index, calculated from height
and weight) shows if you're "overweight". BMI categories
have recently changed, resulting in millions of people becoming
"overweight" or "obese" overnight
(without gaining any weight). Here are some well-known fatties,
according to current BMI categories7:
Brad Pitt ("overweight")
Mel Gibson ("overweight")
George Bush ("overweight")
Russell Crowe ("obese")
George Clooney ("obese")
Tom Cruise ("obese")
In 1996, a US study on body weight (by the National Centre
for Health Statistics) analysed data from 600,000 subjects.
The mortality rate for white non-smokers in the supposedly
ideal BMI range (ie thin) was the same as for those in the
overweight range. Dozens of medical studies have found increasing
body weight to be associated with a lower incidence of various
cancers. Heavier women have much lower rates of osteoporosis
(in Britain, more women die from osteoporosis-related hip
fracture than from breast, cervical and uterine cancer combined).8
We're already eating less
The food intake of the average Briton has actually decreased
by 750 calories a day over the past 30 years, according to
a study by the Royal College of General Practitioners.
(The current official recommendation for calorie intake is
2,000 a day for women and 2,500 for men). The reason we're
getting fatter is supposedly because we are burning off 800
fewer calories a day than we were in the 1970s. "Children
today don't walk anywhere. They go by car", says
a Daily Mail editorial, echoing widespread media disapproval
of sedentary lifestyles. The Daily Mail, of course,
is well-known for playing down the risks (such as crime) of
walking on Britain's streets.9
The War on Fat
The obesity scare, like the WMD scare, seems to be an American
import. Paul Campos says: "The war on fat is both
a cause and a consequence of the transformation of the Protestant
work ethic into the American diet ethic... what the American
elites consider most desirable is a body whose appearance
signals a triumph of the will over desire itself."
Both the US and UK establishments no doubt view obesity as
an ideal health scare for these reasons:
It confirms the views of puritan
It keeps politically-awkward stories off the news
It creates a lucrative pharmaceutical market
It correlates with poverty ("poor = ignorant/lazy")
It's not blamed on the establishment
Fat worse than death
An Esquire magazine poll of 1,000 women between the
ages of 18 and 25 showed that 54% would rather be run over
by a truck than be fat. The diet industry is worth billions.
There's enormous social pressure to be thin without
health scares. The medical warnings just add new anxieties
to existing anxieties.10
If each mouthful of food makes you anxious (calories kill,
after all), consider the following: A pound of body fat contains
3,500 calories. A large bar (100g) of chocolate contains about
500 calories. So if you stuff your face with chocolate (in
addition to what you normally eat) every day for a whole week,
you'll gain, at most, one pound in weight.
Five portions a day
We've been urged to eat more fruit and vegetables because
they contain antioxidants, compounds that ward off oxidation
and prevent heart disease. Chocolate comes from fruit (the
cocoa bean is the fruit of the cacao tree) and is a good source
of antioxidants make sure you get five daily portions.
2. Telegraph, Jan 2004
3. Daily Mail, Jan 2004
4. Times, Jan 2004
5. Telegraph, Oct 2003
6. Observer, Aug 2003
7. Observer, 30/5/04; Guardian, 24/4/04
8. Guardian, 24/4/04
9. Telegraph, 30/5/04; Daily Mail, 27/5/04
10. Esquire, Feb 1994
By Brian Dean
originally published in the Idler No 34, Winter