We’re obese for the same reason we’re in debt – we prefer to forget the future

Putting off hard tasks and difficult decisions costs humanity dearly

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On Sunday, I gave away my mince pies. I had got to the point where I didn’t really like a cup of tea without one, and when you drink as much tea as I do that adds up to an awful lot. I had, it’s true, just had a three-course lunch, which ended with four mini chocolate puddings. I did, it’s true, have a giant slab of cheesecake at a friend’s house after dinner that night. But although my lunch guest was quite surprised by the package I handed him as he walked to the door, I was quite relieved to get rid of those mince pies.

On Monday, I missed them. I was writing a piece for the paper, and thought that writing suddenly seemed difficult without mince pies. I couldn’t remember how you were meant to think without the help of pastry, and sugar, and dried fruit. I’m still not sure I can. But I’m trying very hard to go cold turkey on mince pies.

In this, I am like many, many other people who have started the year with a list of things they’re trying to give up. My former neighbour, for example, told me on Twitter that she would invite me for dinner in February, because January was going to be “cabbage soup”. She is, in other words, for 31 days, giving up not just mince pies, but food.

Maybe she’ll manage it. Maybe she won’t. Most don’t. More than 80 per cent of us, according to a study by the psychologist Richard Wiseman, break the resolutions we make. We like the idea of willpower while we’re still eating the mince pies, but when we’ve stopped, we prefer the mince pies. We like the idea of deferred gratification, in other words, but when it comes down to it, instant gratification, as Carrie Fisher said in Postcards from the Edge, “just isn’t soon enough”.

Getting bigger

It isn’t clear how many people are making the resolutions they’re breaking, or how many of them are really fat. But an awful lot are. About a quarter of British adults, in fact, are. We’re nearly as fat as America. We’re fatter than the whole of Europe. If we want to punch above our weight as a nation, we’re going to have to punch quite hard.

That, by the way, isn’t fat as in plump, tubby or “celebrating curves”. That’s fat as in “obese”, which isn’t a polite word doctors have dreamt up, so that fat people won’t be offended when they’re told they’re fat. It’s a medical term and what it means is that you’re likely to die not from being old, but from being fat. It means that you’re likely to die from heart disease, or cancer, or type 2 diabetes, but you’re likely to have quite a nasty time first.

Doctors know this. Politicians know this. The Royal College of Physicians knows this. It has just published a report which says that treatment for obesity, which currently costs the NHS £5bn a year, is “patchy” and “inadequate”. It says that every NHS trust should have “an obesity champion” and that the Government should appoint an “obesity tsar”. The tsar, it says, perhaps because the word “tsar” makes it think of bloodlines and inherited wealth, might come from the House of Lords.

The report, like every other report on obesity, says that this is an urgent problem that must be addressed. And it is. It must. The figures show – the numbers, that is, not the big, round bodies in stretchy polyester – that obesity might bankrupt the NHS. The figures show that a few gastric bands, and a few leaflets at GPs’ surgeries, won’t be enough. The figures show, in fact, that this is a big, complicated problem, to do with corporations, and marketing, and the fact that many people don’t have to move much any more, and the fact that processed food is cheap.

This big, complicated problem is a crisis. It’s a real crisis. It’s a big crisis. It is, like the laws about tax cuts and public spending that were set to kick in in America at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and, like the problems with the euro which might still lead to the break-up of Europe, like a bomb that might explode, or a cliff you might fall off. But we’re so used to hearing that everything is a crisis, and seeing people on TV talk about “crises” which go on day after day, and month after month, that we don’t seem to know what the word “crisis” means. Or if we do, we don’t care.

The Republicans, for example, who waited until the last hours before midnight to agree to some kind of “deal” on the “fiscal cliff”, acted as if something that might cause a global recession, and mean that millions of Americans didn’t have anything to live on at all, was just a game. The European leaders who go off to summits which cost taxpayers millions, and eat lovely dinners which are described in newspapers afterwards, talk about the “eurocrisis” as if it’s something that can be solved another time, and not something that’s causing some people to commit suicide, and some people to starve.

Relax, don't do it

They do this because human beings have always preferred to do things that are easy, and only to address a problem if it can’t be pushed away. When we lived in caves, it was quite easy to think that an animal that was about to attack you was a crisis. When you’re watching the catastrophes roll in, on Twitter, and websites, and TV news, for all the hours you’re awake, it isn’t quite so easy at all.

But not everything is a crisis. Things being slightly worse than last year isn’t a crisis. Having to pay slightly higher taxes, or having a slight drop in income, if you’re fed and clothed and have a roof over your head, isn’t necessarily a crisis. We need, and our politicians need, to be able to tell the difference between the things that are really important and the things that aren’t. And we need to put our efforts into the things that are important. And to recognise that solving complicated problems takes thought, and energy, and time.

Quite a few of the problems that face us have come about because we’ve wanted to forget about the future and think about now. That’s why many of us don’t have pensions. That’s why so much of the Western world is in debt. And that’s why the problems of obesity won’t be solved by “cabbage soup”, or giving up mince pies.

If you want to keep a New Year’s resolution, you should, according to the psychologists, make it clear, and realistic and brief. You should identify the goal and then focus on the strategy. You’re going to need to put a lot of effort into the strategy. You’re going to need, in other words, and it would be nice if the politicians would listen, to do less, but to do it well.

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