Janet Street-Porter: It's time to ditch this unhealthy stereotype

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The Independent Online

Can I write in praise of the North? If you've been reading the woeful tale of Fat Britain, the main culprits all seems to reside north of the Humber. Not only has Britain been shamed this week as the fattest country in Europe, a north-south divide seems to emerge, according to the latest Health Report for England.

In Yorkshire and the Humber, over 24 per cent of all men are clinically obese. The North-east also has the country's unhealthiest eaters, with less than one in five adults eating the recommended five portions of fruit or vegetables a day. In the North-east, people will live the shortest, are the biggest binge drinkers, are most likely to die young from cancer, and are the heaviest smokers.

Now the Government has announced plans to hand out vouchers for milk, fruit, vegetables and vitamins to parents and pregnant women. The vouchers, valued at £2.80 a week for pregnant women, £5.60 for each child under a year old and £2.80 for each child aged from one to five, will be distributed from next month, following a successful pilot scheme in Devon and Cornwall.

Poverty is undoubtedly a factor in obesity, but exercise and education play a major part as well. But there is no doubt in my mind that Yorkshire and the North-east are simply the most beautiful part of Britain, and don't deserve to be labelled Fat Zones. I have lived in the same valley in North Yorkshire, Upper Nidderdale, for 20 years - and far from teeming with lacklustre fatties smoking themselves to death, who shun lettuce and spend every night slumped on the sofa in front of the telly, the reverse is actually true.

Obese politicians like John Prescott give the region a bad public image, whereas the truth is that my local swimming pool is packed, line dancing, aerobics and yoga classes are fully signed up, and the local greengrocer sells high-fibre cereal and low-fat yoghurt.

Yorkshire isn't a place where locals eat, smoke and drink themselves into an early grave - but the place where an increasing number of people from urban conurbations want to live. Rural house prices are soaring in the North-east, and there is a shortage of affordable housing in many areas. At the same time, unloved and unused industrial buildings are being given a new lease of life - exciting regeneration schemes have completely transformed the city centres of places as diverse as Halifax, Leeds and Newcastle.

Even more thrilling is the fact that Harrogate, in North Yorkshire, is one of few the places in Britain where Tesco has singularly failed to make much impact. The chain now has the largest market share of retail business in 81 out of 121 postcode areas in Britain, but it has failed to make any impact whatsoever in just four, which include the Outer Hebrides, the Orkneys, the Shetlands, and Harrogate!

This is because the town has a huge number of good food stores and a population who are prepared to pay for individuality and character when it comes to what they eat.

Yorkshire and the North-east are quite simply the best place to live in Britain - the area has the best landscape, the friendliest people, the most historic buildings, and a huge number of top-rated restaurants and food suppliers. It is a shame that newspaper headlines and government reports all contrive to reinforce a whole set out out-dated stereotypes about the region.

My old gardener, Mr Bottomley was very fond of saying "You'll want for nowt in Pateley Bridge" - and he was right. Since when did the odd pork pie, slice of black pudding or slice of Yorkshire Brack constitute a crime?

It's more important to teach nutrition and cookery to all children from the age of eight (and not as an option in secondary schools as is planned), than to start telling Northerners what not to eat.

Three cheers for a Pop Art survivor

London is full of art dealers, collectors, curators and gallery owners as the Freize Art Fair kicks off in Regents Park. There are must-see shows at the Royal Academy and the National Portrait Gallery, featuring work by young American artists and David Hockney.

One artist in his seventies is making the biggest impact this week, with exhibitions at the Haunch of Venison in Mayfair and the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane. James Rosenquist is back for the first time in 32 years after being arrested on his last visit, for swimming in the Serpentine. Trained as a billboard painter, Rosenquist is the only member of pop's great US trilogy - Warhol and Lichenstein being the others - still alive. And his work is bigger and more energising than ever. He was hilarious on Front Row the other night, telling Mark Lawson that he painted things "very accurately - but very large", and revealing how much he liked painting spaghetti.

* We have reached that time of year when wild mushroom lovers set out for the woods, clutching their special knives and baskets in which to place the seasonal delights of ceps, chanterelles, puffballs and blewitts.

The other Sunday I took part in a mushroom walk at the Thorpe Perrow arboretum near Bedale in North Yorkshire. Around 30 enthusiasts spent a couple of hours comparing specimens, with an expert on hand to identify any poisonous varieties. It was a delightful experience - but things are getting out of hand on the other side of the Channel, where gatherers and farmers have taken to fighting each other with sticks.

In the Basque country, one farmer reckons that 30 cars a day come and disgorge pickers who trespass on his land and pick illegally, while a mayor in the Gers region claims there are 400 to 600 unwelcome intruders a day. In some areas you have to hold a permit before you can pop a chanterelle in your backpack, and there are fines of €300 for everyone else.

Sometimes the British are far more civilised than our neighbours, no matter what they may say about our cuisine.