New year, a new obesity plan from Westminster

Ainsley Harriott is the latest celebrity chef hired to improve the nation's diet. So does he have the recipe for success? Jeremy Laurance finds out

Like daffodils in spring, you can tell it's January when a state-sponsored celebrity chef arrives to publicise the Government's current attempt to rein in the nation's expanding waistlines. Yesterday the Department of Health announced Ainsley Harriott, of Ready Steady Cook fame, has joined Jamie Oliver and Lloyd Grossman by producing a cookbook of healthy "supermeals", none costing more than £5 to make, to prove that it is possible to eat both well and cheaply.

Three supermarket chains have agreed to sell the ingredients at a discount and four million recipe cards are to be posted to families.

Will it work? Labour doesn't think so. Diane Abbott, Shadow Public Health minister, called it "an advertisement for big business". The supermarket chains signed up to the deal – Asda, Co-op and Aldi – have not revealed how big the discounts they are offering will be.

Governments have struggled to tackle the obesity crisis for 20 years, but each new attempt has failed. The UK is the fattest nation in Europe and the number of obese adults is forecast to rise by 73 per cent over the next two decades.

The drivers of the epidemic – increased promotion of junk food and reduced opportunities for exercise – have been known for 40 years but governments have feared the wrath of voters if they slapped extra taxes on unhealthy foods or restricted car use. Ever since Virginia Bottomley, a former Tory Health Secretary in the early 1990s, was ridiculed for urging the nation to eat "three egg-sized potatoes a day", ministers have been terrified of "nanny state" accusations and have run scared of telling people how to live their lives.

John Reid, Labour's former Health Secretary, was determined to avoid any hint of nannying in the public-health white paper published in September 2004 which laid out the government strategy to tackle rising rates of obesity, drinking and sexually transmitted infections.

Six months earlier, the Wanless report, commissioned by the Treasury to examine health trends, had noted that 30 years of efforts to transform the NHS from a national sickness service to a national health service that focused on prevention had failed and the burden of chronic disease caused by unhealthy lifestyles was growing so fast it threatened to overwhelm the service unless radical action was taken. "Activity is needed on a wide front to help individuals to take responsibility," Sir Derek Wanless said. "The Government has a major role in the process by providing the necessary framework for success."

Mr Reid responded with just one legal intervention – the ban on smoking in enclosed public places. Yet it proved that nannying works. Within a year of implementation of the ban in July 2007, the biggest-ever fall in smoking had been recorded, 1,000 heart attacks had been prevented and the air in bars, restaurants and offices was sweeter. The public, far from decrying the restriction as feared, welcomed it.

With a few exceptions – seat belts, driving and drinking – ministers have eschewed legislation in favour of exhortation and encouragement backed by "awareness-raising" campaigns. That they have had little effect has not surprised observers. All past healthy-eating drives have been swamped by the food advertising of the big companies. The Change4Life campaign – of which the Ainslie Harriott cookbook is the latest initiative – was launched three years ago by the former Labour government in association with the food industry. It was intended to replace confrontation with co-operation to harness the industry's £200m advertising budget to healthier ends. But critics say the campaign has provided the companies with a gold-plated opportunity to cast their brands in a healthy light and that they are only supporting it as a way of heading off the regulation they fear. Critics cite as evidence the continued lack of a traffic-light labelling system – the single measure that would most help consumers make healthy choices, according to food-policy experts. But it is resisted by the industry.

Disbelief turned to despair in October when Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, urged the nation to cut five billion calories from its diet, illustrating this with images of Olympic-sized swimming pools of cola and chocolate bars lined up from Lands End to John O'Groats. Professor Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics, said a five-billion-calorie cut equalled 16 dry-roasted peanuts per person. No threat to the food industry there – and no answer to the obesity crisis.

Star campaigns: how did they do?

Jamie Oliver

The former Naked Chef was already a household name in 2005 when he began his "Feed Me Better" campaign to improve the quality of school meals. Millions watched his crusade to reduce the salt content in meals, while politicians fell over themselves to be associated with the campaign and endorse his proposals. The long-term benefits were less clear: demand for school meals fell in some areas after the programme was broadcast as parents instead made their children packed lunches.

Loyd Grossman

In 2000, the Through the Keyhole and Masterchef presenter helped found a £40m campaign to improve the standards of food in NHS hospitals. He spent five years working for free on the project but quit in 2005, disillusioned with the lack of progress and a measly budget that was often worked out at under £1 per meal. He continues to be involved in the successor organisation and some of his recipe changes were implemented.

Heston Blumenthal

The experimental chef is best known for extravagant concoctions involving liquid nitrogen at his £150-a-head Fat Duck restaurant, but he has spent two years working on a research project with the NHS and Reading University to improve the taste of hospital meals. Last month, he told Radio 4's Today programme of a "fantastic" response after adding seaweed to NHS meals but that hospital food largely remained "stuff that most of us would never eat".

IN NUMBERS

9,000: Obesity causes an estimated 9,000 premature deaths a year

24 per cent: Proportion of women who are clinically obese, compared to 22 per cent of men

16 per cent: The proportion of women who were clinically obese in 1993, compared to 13 per cent of men

90 per cent: Proportion of British children who will be obese by 2050, at current rates

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