Ann Widdecombe: Don't tell me how fat I am. Or what I can do about it

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The Independent Online

When you have a spare moment this week look at the people around you: at work, in the street, on the bus. You will see a handful who bulge ignominiously, their clothes straining at the seams, and a few who look as if they could do with a whole month of four-course meals, but the overwhelming majority will look perfectly normal - neither too fat nor too thin - or possibly just a little bit tubby. Then stop the next time you pass a children's playground and watch them all tearing about, screaming, making the adults feel tired just watching.

That is the norm to all but the higher echelons of the medical profession who would have us believe that half the population is overweight, that a third of the population will soon be obese and that children are the particular victims. The consequences are that we are due to die from heart attacks, and meanwhile will wear the NHS out with the burden of looking after us. I suppose it is a mercy we are not all bound for Perdition afterwards as well, rejected by some Divine set of scales.

Dear me. Would they remember to tell the Government actuaries and the Pensions minister? These worthies have been telling us for a long time that we are all living so long that we are likely to cause a crisis in the pensions industry.

I am quite happy to admit that obesity is a problem in the Western world, that it is one of the less pleasing results of prosperity, that children spend far too much time sitting, physically inactive, in front of computers and televisions, that we all eat too much junk food, and that shedding a few pounds can increase our sense of wellbeing. I also think government should respond in terms of health education, and that teachers and GPs should promote the benefits of healthy eating.

Government, however, can not make choices for us. We have never been so health conscious as a nation: people spend their lunch hours sweating and puffing in gyms when once they would have spent them eating lunch, they pound the pavements in jogging suits at ungodly hours when the previous generation was sound asleep, fridges are full of muesli and yoghurt instead of bacon and eggs, food packets are covered with small print telling us of every last calorie and percentage of added this and that.

The biggest beneficiaries of this nationwide obsession are the producers of diet foods and fads. No one, it seems, wants to face the obvious, common sense but decidedly disagreeable fact that the only way to lose weight is to eat less or exercise more or preferably both. Rather, there is a search, which makes the Gold Rush look like a rather dilatory affair, after a magic wand which will take away all the pounds without causing any inconvenience or involving much self-restraint.

Dr Atkins offered one such wand. Munch all the fat you like but leave out carbohydrates. He had heart disease and died overweight. Then there are the cabbage soup diet, the egg and grapefruit diet, slimming pills, and row upon row at any chemist of substitutes for normal food, when all you need is less of the real thing.

The cure is worse than the disease. We are now a society with its values upside down, worshipping a god called physical perfection, prostrate before the altar of the ideal waistline, pouring our offerings into the collection plates of the diet industry. Sin is measured in calories and absolution dispensed in salads.

The stress of it all is enough to give anyone a heart attack, and we should be horribly ashamed that children can suffer from anorexia because they have learned an obsession with slimming from adults. If you are overweight but not gross and you are spiritually content, unstressed and a sound sleeper with good genes I would back your chances any day against one who fulfils a doctor's dream of body mass but who is stressed, unhappy, sleepless and the child of a heart attack case.

In other words it is not just our bulginess we need to keep in proportion, but our response to it.