Obesity is a class issue – and we’re failing Britain’s children

Judith Woods: 'A great many people don't believe you can rustle up a pasta dish in the time it takes for a lukewarm Maccie D to arrive on the back of an electric scooter'
Judith Woods: 'A great many people don't believe you can rustle up a pasta dish in the time it takes for a lukewarm Maccie D to arrive on the back of an electric scooter' - Energyy

Who are you calling fat? Is it me? Is it you? Is it that child – those children – at school who frankly could sit a GCSE in ultra-processed foods? Too much? Maybe. That’s my point; we all judge. Of course we do.

But it’s only by admitting we do it that we can hit the pause button on the blame game and get to grips with a calamitous public health issue that extends far beyond the personal and into the political.

A new World Health Organisation survey (yes, your heart ought to sink) has revealed that our children are among the most inactive on the planet. In a study covering 44 countries, England, Wales and Scotland performed poorly on markers such as brisk walking and anything that could be characterised as daily exercise. By the age of 15 for example, just 11 per cent of girls and 16 per cent of boys in England did at least 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity.

The figure for Wales was seven per cent of girls and 16 per cent of boys, putting us near the bottom of the global table below Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Norway and Croatia.

I’ll be the first to confess I feel very piqued to be below Romania, however irrational. Despite the fact our public services are falling apart and there’s human poo in our swimming – and, oops, occasionally our drinking – water, we still consider ourselves to be one of the most advanced nations on Earth.

I could detail our children’s parlous fruit and veg consumption – almost twice as many young people from high socio-economic groups are eating vegetables, compared with lower socio-economic groups – but I wouldn’t want to put anyone off their family bag of Doritos.

So what does it say about us if a generation of children are being sentenced to a lifetime of physical and mental health misery because they are too fat and too sedentary? Perhaps not your child. But a lot of children.

According to government statistics published in April, 63.8 per cent of adults aged 18 and over were overweight or living with obesity. The corresponding figure for children aged 10 and 11 is 36.6 per cent.

We might think we’ve come a long way since Wallis Simpson observed, with exquisite hauteur, that one could never be too rich or too thin. But the wheel is turning full circle.

Clothing is no longer the instant class signifier it once was: all young people wear prison issue grey tracksuit bottoms and Air Jordan trainers. Dressing down is the new dressing up; stealth wealth surrounds us. But there’s another distinctly 21st-century giveaway: what separates the affluent from the aspirational isn’t just postcode or educational statistics but body mass index.

Nowhere is the socio-economic divide between rich and poor more starkly visible than in the realm of obesity. This has gone far beyond what happens in an individual kitchen or in the playground. Ambient snacking has become a modern curse; fast food is making our children slow while parents eat themselves to death, costing the NHS around £6.5 billion a year. Obesity is also the second biggest cause of preventable cancer.

Britain’s kids are a far cry from body positive influencers, with their smoke-and-mirrors insistence everyone should embrace their curves. Our children are fat, unhappy and resigned – let’s not pretend that anyone enjoys hefting the equivalent of a couple of bags of sugar around everywhere they go.

This is not a criticism or a value judgment but doubtlessly it will be interpreted as such because, despite the clinical evidence, we still bring far too much emotion into the discussion.

Somewhere in the primitive, hunter-gatherer part of our brains lurks the unmediated suspicion that people are overweight because they have availed themselves of common resources and somehow represent a threat. Nonsense, of course, but we’re none of us as evolved as we like to imagine. I’ve been fat and I can attest strangers are considerably nicer now I’m not.

The key to tackling the stigma lies in education in the broadest sense; in recent months, the estimable Dr Chris van Tulleken, author of Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food… and Why Can’t We Stop? has laid bare the unpalatable reality and immoral cynicism of the companies peddling salt, sugar and fat to the masses.

In a busy stressful world, it’s not parents’ fault that they reach for a ready meal or summon a Deliveroo, now and then. But we must do more to make all sections of society understand the crippling cost of convenience in terms of their family’s health.

You and I might know the gateway pleasure of chopping an onion and sauteeing it with garlic and tomato, but the demise of compulsory domestic science lessons in school means a great many people don’t believe you can fling in some frozen veg and rustle up a pasta dish in the time it takes for a lukewarm Maccie D to arrive on the back of an electric scooter for a fraction of the price.

We need change. Sugar taxes and calorie labels don’t go nearly far enough. The only way forward is a Royal Commission on children’s health. This is too important to be left in the hands of politicians. Fat isn’t a feminist issue. Fat is a fiercely disputed, polarising public health catastrophe that we dismiss at our peril.