Anthony Daniels: Should the state tell us what to eat and drink?

The British do not eat, so much as graze ruminantly on a diet of corn-starch, fats and salt

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Anyone who, in an honest spirit of enquiry, has watched the British eat and drink will have been appalled at the sight. A large part of the population has become simultaneously gluttonous and undiscriminating: or rather it chooses terrible things to consume and terrible ways of consuming them. And, increasingly, it has the physique to prove it.

Anyone who, in an honest spirit of enquiry, has watched the British eat and drink will have been appalled at the sight. A large part of the population has become simultaneously gluttonous and undiscriminating: or rather it chooses terrible things to consume and terrible ways of consuming them. And, increasingly, it has the physique to prove it.

How far should the Government be responsible for the health consequences of its own population's lack of taste and self-control? How far should it attempt to rein in those companies that profit from encouraging the idle and foolish to consume junk food and alcopops? Should the state be nanny or indifferent bystander?

There is no simple principle of political philosophy that will answer the question, that makes the Government responsible either for everything or responsible for nothing. Almost no one, for example, would deny that the Government had the right, indeed the obligation, to limit the sale of alcohol; no one believes that alcohol should be sold everywhere, to anyone of whatever age, at any time.

We expect the Government to protect us from adulteration and outright poisoning. In the 19th century, for example, arsenic regularly found its way into chocolates, beer and other commodities. But the harm done by the couch potato's diet is less clear-cut: I am often startled by the blooming health and gargantuan size of those who have been brought up on a diet of junk. Nevertheless, the evidence seems to be that the sugary, fatty, salty products of the prepared food industry are bad for the health, at least long-term.

The question boils down, at least partly, to one of efficacy rather than one of fundamental philosophical principle. Will the Government's envisaged advertising bans make much difference? Personally, I rather doubt it, but I cannot work myself up into a lather of indignation against them on the grounds that they threaten our fundamental liberties. Moreover, I might be wrong, and the Government might be right: the proof of the pudding, to coin a phrase, will be in the eating.

We should not overlook far deeper and more revealing aspects of the national diet, however. Most people prefer not to think about these, because they reveal a society in a state of profound decomposition. Britain is the most littered country in Europe. Why is this? If you examine the national litter, as I do wherever I walk, you discover that it is composed mainly of the wrappings of junk and fast food. The British eat on the street to a degree almost unknown anywhere else.

But why should this be? A sociologist told me that half of British households no longer have a dining table, and this certainly accords with my experience of my adolescent and young adult patients, many of whom have never in their lives known what it is to eat a meal at a table with someone else. They have been taught, and have learnt, to eat when and where they feel like it: and, as the monstrous regiment of nibblers shows, they feel like it now and always.

Households in which there are no dining tables are also households in which not much in the way of cooking fresh ingredients goes on. The microwave is the cooker, the saucepan, the casserole dish, the entire batterie de cuisine in fact. And everyone in the household eats not as a social activity, but almost furtively. Meals are nasty, British, solitary and short.

In other words, one of the most elementary but important and enjoyable of all social activities, eating together, is now closed to a considerable proportion of the population. It does not eat, so much as graze ruminantly on a diet of corn-starch, fats and salt.

If I am right, adorning packages with little symbols to alert consumers to their relative healthiness or unhealthiness will not make much difference. Convenience and immediate gratification are more powerful attractions than is maturity-onset diabetes 20, 30 or 40 years later a deterrent. It is a mistake to suppose that what people need to live healthily is yet more information. In fact, family structure and stability is much more important than information about the nutritional quality of cheese-and-kipper-flavoured crisps.

Another problem, not likely to be solved by the Government's proposals, is the habit of mothers, developed in recent decades, of asking young children what they would like to eat. This has the effect not of increasing the child's repertoire, but of limiting it. The result is that huge numbers of young adults now eat like children. And the habit of asking children what they would like to eat is itself the result of a sentimental and trashy notion of childhood.

There is no doubt that we are now the fattest, greediest, most slovenly and least discriminating people in Europe. You see fat people in France, but far fewer than here, and when they are fat they are also less fat. There are far fewer fat people even in Germany, where overeating is not unknown. And the logical connections of our eating habits with our way of life, including our family life, presents us with a most unflattering picture of contemporary Britain.

The writer is a doctor

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