Editor-At-Large: Say 'fat', and stop the nation eating itself to death

Janet Street-Porter
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:42

If I call you fat, is it kind or cruel? A plain-speaking government health minister says describing the overweight as "obese" isn't direct enough to make them lose weight. According to Anne Milton, if a doctor uses the F-word, we're more likely to realise it's our responsibility to shed surplus poundage. She's expressing a personal view and not government policy, but this no-nonsense approach has found support in the medical profession. Obesity has become a meaningless word. It sounds as if you're suffering from a social disease, not a condition that's clogging up your arteries and hastening your date with a coffin. This modern blight isn't confined to the two-legged – a charity report claims half our dogs are obese and will suffer early deaths. We're killing our pets by overfeeding them, human-style.

Like a lot of words used by the last government, obesity sounds rather decorous, and seems to deflect blame from the individual who is generally fat through their own choice of behaviour. Regularly under Labour, no one was to be blamed personally for anything unpleasant that happened to them in life – obesity was thought to be a condition you had somehow magically arrived at and therefore needed "help" with, and the nanny state would be there to hold your hand, with leaflets, vouchers, and lots of little rewards along the way.

In the supportive world of Labour, we rarely took the blame for our life choices. If our kids didn't read or concentrate in lessons, they were described as "challenged". If people couldn't get off their backsides to find a job, we were told they needed a "fresh start". If badly behaved youths made residents' lives a misery, they were described as "antisocial", and issued with an Asbo. Almost half completely ignored these worthless directives.

So, time for a back-to-basics approach, where the corpulent are tagged as fat. Over the past decade, we've had health directives aimed at getting us to exercise, expensive ad and online campaigns "educating" us to consume the right number of fruit and veg a day, and initiatives directed at reducing our alcohol consumption. We've been showered with statistics, told what our BMI should be and how many units of booze we should drink a week. In spite of the millions being spent, we've got fatter and we drink more. Our kids have bulked up and become lazier. They're so inactive that a couple of ugly Olympic mascots are touring schools to encourage pupils to take up sport. The average size of the British backside has expanded under Blair and Brown. We sank into debt, but we didn't cut back on what we ate.

The coalition has used our financial woes as an excuse to cull government advertising, cut quangos, reduce spending on health education. They're big on self-help – that's the new, cheap mantra. But if Labour's nanny state didn't get us fit, will Mrs Milton's direct approach work any better? Can we be trusted to sort ourselves out?

I don't agree with the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's decision to reduce the money spent on the Change4Life campaign – designed to encourage healthy eating and exercise – and ask the food industry to fund it instead. His decision to drop the more stringent traffic light labelling system on food is also questionable. Food labelling is highly confusing, and the industry can't be trusted to self-police and provide clear information on packaging which shoppers can easily understand.

Mr Lansley seems to think that commercial organisations, which are driven by the need for profit not the health of the consumer, will step up and magically become socially responsible. Not very likely: their primary function is to increase profits for shareholders. The Government does have an important role to play in forcing the food industry to be more transparent, and the new president of the Royal College of Physicians, Sir Richard Thompson, says so too.

What overweight voters don't need is air-headed ministers like Lynne Featherstone opining about size 14 role models like Christina Hendricks in Mad Men. The equalities minister, like the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is one of those new brooms that seem to rely on a constant injection of media coverage to validate their existence. The fact is that most women in the UK are much larger than Ms Hendricks, and several dress sizes bigger than their mums and grannies were. I'm no different. I think telling us we're fat is a good idea.

Screen test: Good teeth, a perky bob? You've got the job

My goodness, it's been a tough business. But after scouring the country for exactly the right replacement for Christine Bleakley on The One Show, the BBC has managed to come up with someone who looks exactly like... Christine Bleakley! Alex Jones ticks all the right boxes: she's certainly attractive, almost exactly the same age, has a regional accent, and a full set of gleaming white gnashers complementing her shoulder-length glossy brunette bob.

Are we meant to be excited that – in a nod to the older audience – the BBC is thrilled to announce it has also signed up Lady Prescott to present some items in the new series and appear on the sofa in the studio? Pauline Prescott trained as a hairdresser, has no journalistic experience, and her main skill has been to demonstrate immense patience and understanding when dealing with an errant husband.

Mind you, she's got a regional accent, a shoulder-length brunette bob, lashings of makeup and oozes glamour. So she'll fit in nicely, won't she?

How to pack the perfect picnic

Pity the family who decided to go for a picnic on Clifton Downs in Bristol and fell foul of local council officials, who ordered them to take down their windbreak as it constituted "a semi-permanent structure". The picnic was then abandoned, as the paper plates and serviettes kept blowing all over the place. Picnics are part of our cultural heritage – and based on my own childhood, there are three key ingredients. One, egg sandwiches, usually encrusted with sand or dirt from the inevitable gale. Two, the Primus stove brought along to brew up the tea – all my sister and I craved was a visit to a coffee bar where we could hang out. Finally, the windbreak, hammered into the beach or field – we would all huddle behind ours in our raincoats until it was time to get back in the car and drive home.

Why I'm a magnet for midges

I've just returned from the Highlands. Luckily it was too windy for the midges to land on me most of the time, but the minute the breeze dropped the little blighters attacked. It's not easy descending a Munroe ,swatting at them as you try to stop yourself from slipping down the loose shale. Scotland would be perfect, if these pests could be eliminated. Now, researchers at Aberdeen University have found that because midges fly above head height, they tend to pick on taller men, but also on overweight women who produce more of the chemicals that attract them (a combination of CO2 and lactic acid). That's why I probably account for 100 per cent of the bites in any midge-infested area, as I'm six foot tall and not skinny. The good news is that the scientists are processing a chemical produced by those who are never bitten, and hope one day to sell it commercially. Hoorah.

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