Professor Mike Lean of Glasgow University described as “absolute nonsense” Christopher Snowdon’s report from the Institute of Economic Affairs ‘The Fat Lie’, which claimed that a lack of exercise, rather than overeating, was behind obesity.
There is a flaw in Lean’s contention that people lie about how much they eat, unless he knows whether they lied less 30 years' ago than they do today?
That aside, another of the report’s findings that does sound a bit far-fetched is that the average person only walks 179 miles a year compared with 255 in 1976. That’s only half a mile a day compared with only 0.7 miles a day, which isn’t much better. Surely 0.2 miles a day cannot account for the difference between normal weight and obesity. But, if these figures are true, people might not have to eat much less than they do now to avoid being overweight.
A message along the lines of ‘eat 100 calories fewer and walk two miles a day’ would be far easier for the government to put across and simpler for people to follow than tinkering around with permutations of fat and sugar levels in foods without really being certain as to the end result.
Successive governments’ apparent refusal to review their policies when new evidence is published is reminiscent of the history of ‘Longitude’ where John Harrison in the 18th century battled for recognition of his chronometer. The government Board set up to judge the longitude prize was convinced that the answer lay in the stars and that any evidence that Harrison’s clock worked was sheer luck. It took intervention by King George III to change the Board's attitude.
The public health lobby could be likened to the longitude Board in their intransigent belief that certain types of food are the main cause of obesity and that the answer lies in food reformulation rather than people’s lifestyles.
Calories have fallen
Having said all this, there is another finding in the report that could be questioned. That is the statement that calories in food eaten outside the home have fallen does not square with other statistics showing an increase.
Whatever the level of credence accordable to the report’s statistics, the government ought to investigate whether walking might offer a more effective approach to preventing obesity than elaborate, and sometimes unrealistic, manipulation of food composition and labelling.
Editor’s note: This is Clare Cheney’s last Trade Talk column as she is about to embark on a well-earned retirement. We wish her good health and happiness for the future.