Black Friday: We need to face up to the greedy capitalism that is making us so fat

According to the consultants at McKinsey Global Institute, obesity costs the NHS more than wars and terrorism

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Sunday 30 November 2014 20:21

British consumerism carries on gorging. Black Friday – another damned American idea – brought out the crowds. Televisions and furniture, frocks and bling, all were shovelled up like Big Macs just because a few quid had been knocked off. All that stuff, where will it go in homes already chock-full? Who cares? The must-haves must be had.

The orgy was an apt metaphor for a society which has lost its bearings and self-restraint. During and after the last World War, people knew the value of things, could hold back gratification, hadn’t yet come to believe the pernicious message – now embedded in our culture – that they were what they owned. After the years of real austerity, there was, understandably, a post-war rush to buy those silk stockings, the car, tools and white goods. But now containable and affordable desire has bloated into insatiable covetousness. And it shows up most worryingly in that most basic of life’s needs – food. People don’t know when to stop eating or to be careful of what it is they are ingesting.

According to the consultants at McKinsey Global Institute, obesity costs the NHS more than wars and terrorism. In fact, people who aren’t starving are getting fatter all around the world. The politics of food is tied to the politics of global capitalism. We cannot stop the crisis of obesity without scrutinising and calling to account those who profit by encouraging gluttony.

People must take some responsibility for not holding back and for sedentary lifestyles. But only some. Manufacturers, devious advertisers and the media throw ads and offers at millions every minute of every day. How can we expect people not to take note, to resist? Children are most assiduously targeted; women’s anxieties are first generated and then exploited; men, it seems, must consume more in order to be real men. They can’t escape the aggressive market and yet are simultaneously accused of bad eating habits and overindulgence. But if overindulgence ended, our economy would take a dive. We should be overhauling the system, not picking on those who have been ensnared by it.

After decades of advice and endless admonitions, the problem keeps growing. Now health experts are even turning on pregnant women. A report by the Infant and Toddler Forum warns mums-to-be that if they don’t watch their diets their child will turn out overweight. Desperate measures like this will probably panic women and make them grab even more chocolate.

If the world’s leaders want to tackle the problem, they will have to abandon some of the central principles of their economic credo. A market totally free of regulation and liability is no longer sustainable. It is annihilating the environment and now ruining public health. Most of the costs of the health services are borne by ordinary taxpayers. We need test cases of obese people taking food manufacturers to court, following the example of ill smokers who took class action against cigarette makers and sellers.

We could go further. All recipe books should be made to have these figures. I recently found one published by Which? magazine in a second-hand bookshop. It has changed how I eat and cook. Did you know that nutritious minestrone soup made with fresh vegetables and with brown pasta is really low in calories? But instead we have lovely Jamie, goddess Nigella, St Mary Berry and sexy Paul Hollywood selling books like hot cakes in the season of ravenousness. That dratted BBC programme on baking is encouraging fat fests all over the land and millions are addicted to TV food programmes.

If they all had to provide truthful information on the dishes, perhaps more people would keep away from foodieland. The biggest lie told about obesity is that only the lower classes are fat. And that this is because they can’t cook. The middle and upper classes can afford to join gym clubs and go off to slimming “spas” to shed weight, but, trust me, they too have weight problems. Look at George Osborne, chubby until recently when he went on a diet – the same diet I have been on because I too had put on pounds. I can tell you because Osborne won’t that it isn’t easy or cheap to lose weight.

Two other measures for national and local governments to consider: ban food ads for children and use the planning laws to make sure our high streets have fewer food outlets. In our small parade all but two shops sell food. Children walk past after school and dive in like seabirds after a glut of fish. They are already addicts and many of them will join the swell of obesity.

For their sakes and the overburdened NHS, leaders must now take action. Capitalism needs to be civic and responsible. Is that too much to ask?

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