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 risk"5
"Official: Atkins diet can be deadly"6

Moral Panic

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, 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")

Junk Science

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 control-freaks
• 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

Food Anxiety

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.


1. Guardian, 27/5/04
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 2004)