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UK Government Policy encourages dieting, could be worse

(Link to BBC report - so, far, 500 comments in 2 hours including some that are not for the faint-hearted).

The UK Department of Health have finally published their long-awaited Obesity Strategy, the imaginatively titled 'Healthy Lives, Healthy People - A Call to Action on Obesity'. The main thrust of the paper is that, echoing Lord McColl's sentiments in his comments last week, we all eat far too much and need to get some self-discipline already and put ourselves on a diet. As such the majority of the proposals involve reducing calorie consumption, through 'nudging' (encouraging the food and drink industries to print energy content on menus, packaging and extending this to alcoholic beverages) toward a 'target' daily nationwide reduction of 5 billion calories (though they are keen to stress that this will not involve 'taking away choice' - we'll see about that). Physical activity is mentioned, but only in terms of its role in expending 'excess' energy as part of weight-loss efforts as opposed to its general benefits for people of all sizes.

The good news is that they've ruled out a 'fat tax' or for that matter significant additional anti-obesity legislation, for now at least, preferring an approach of 'supporting' and 'encouraging' individuals who are held almost wholly responsible for what is nevertheless framed as a 'national crisis' which is 'everyone's business'. So far, so consistent with the Tory 'blame the victim' approach. The bad news is that local authorities, not known for their proportional or measured approach on this topic, are to be handed a lot more power to formulate anti-obesity strategies, carry out monitoring and surveillance, and basically do what they do best by making lifestyles of which they disapprove their business. The role of the planning system (and in particular the controversial new National Planning Policy Framework) in contributing to 'well-being' is emphasised. There's also a worrying exhortation for employers to take a more active role in managing the behaviour of their workforces, though again no stipulation that they must do this.

There's a brief mention of stigmatisation, but only in the usual context of it being one of the inevitable health disbenefits of being fat and an unalterable given rather than something that can be reduced through the way the topic is discussed and presented. This is particularly frustrating given the Department of Health's simultaneous announcement of a strategy to tackle mental health stigma - apparently prejudice and discrimination are harmful barriers to recovery from some conditions but constitute useful 'social constraints' on the behaviour which they consider causes others. There are lots of graphs and tables, some 'scarier' than others but none of which reference the limitations of using data which is based on the BMI measurement and its disputed cut-offs and labels. And there's talk of 'building the evidence base' although I suspect that any evidence that doesn't fit the narrative (such as HAES) will as always be disregarded, downplayed and discredited.

Overall my view on this strategy is mixed. Of course I'm fundamentally opposed to the continued existence of the circumstances that have led to its production in the first place, though I also acknowledge we've a huge mountain to climb before the natural human variation in size which they have pathologised as 'obesity' is regarded not as a social problem but a fact of life consigning hand-wringing policy reports like this to history. In a professional capacity I'm not looking forward to having to refuse planning applications for fast food shops and car parking on the grounds that they 'promote obesity' (no doubt using some euphemistic terminology such as 'harm to wellbeing'). And some of the misinformation and scaremongering in there (ie diabetes 2 in children being somehow statistically significant, or the already debunked extrapolation of previous trends to some nightmare scenario of a fat majority) wants me want to bang my head against a wall.

On balance however and much as I dislike this Government's divide and distract approach (indeed their populist immigration reforms could potentially destroy my family and leave us without the fall-back of European human rights law) I'm relieved that there's not more mention of legislation and coercion, as was looking increasingly likely under the last administration. The cynic in me suspects that they know the effect of the proposals (most of which could be summarised as 'more of the same') on the overall weight of the population will be negligible, setting the stage to justify more draconian measures in the years to come, but maybe it buys us some time. It's a lengthy document and like anything of this nature full of potentially triggering headdesk moments, but definitely something worth being informed upon if you're fat and live in the UK.

BBC story funnier than Little Britain | Teaching Tolerance - sort of.

DeeLeigh's picture
October 18th, 2011 | Link | Richie, thanks for taking

Richie, thanks for taking the time to look at this policy document, give us a summary, and share your impressions. It sounds like it's full of all the usual stereotypes and assumptions. However, it's good news that no legislation is planned.

I share your frustration with the double standard on stigma. It's unacceptable when it comes to any other health and diversity issues, but it's a positive influence when it comes to body size? I don't think so. In fact, what a huge, stinking pile of crap.

richie79's picture
October 18th, 2011 | Link | Thanks Deeleigh. A shame

Thanks Deeleigh. A shame no-one else had any thoughts on it. I suppose the size of my original post might have been off-putting. As I am happy to acknowledge, brevity is not my strong suit.

Charlotte Cooper has also blogged about this over at Obesity Timebomb. She raises a couple of points I hadn't picked up on about continued funding (albeit from the private sector) for the horrible, patronisingly fatphobic Change4Life campaign. Also, the National Child Measuring Programme will continue, despite a string of high-profile issues with its implementation.

"What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right" - Albert Einstein

DeeLeigh's picture
October 18th, 2011 | Link | Sometimes I get discouraged

Sometimes I get discouraged when I work hard on a post and nobody comments. Sometimes I slap one up that I worked on for five minutes and a big discussion starts. I've decided that some of them are just more news-ish; people read them but don't really have anything concise to say about them. When that happens, sometimes I notice other posts that seem to have been influenced by it pop up on the feeds, so that makes me feel better - it shows that people are still reading. For example, I'm pretty sure that Charlotte put up her post after yours went up, so she might have thought to post on the topic because she saw your post and read it.

Also, the membership system at BFB has been messed up for a long time and commenting here isn't as straightforward as it is on other blogs.

vesta44's picture
October 19th, 2011 | Link | I read everything that's

I read everything that's posted on BFB but I don't always comment. If I don't comment, it's either because the original poster said it better than I ever could and there isn't anything I can add to it, or I'm just at a loss for words - I don't have any way to express my frustration and rage without using language that would make a sailor blush (and believe me, I can do that, my husband was a sailor for 20 years and he's told me a few times to watch my language when I'm really

WLS - Sorry, not my preferred way of dying. *glares at doctor recommending it*

strawberry October 18th, 2011 | Link | But Richie, we do read your

But Richie, we do read your posts, or at least I do. It's not the length that keeps me from commenting much (I do enjoy your style), but just my limited repertoire of reactions bouncing between indignation and a sense of futility. I wonder how you and your family can continue to live in such a place that cares more about the feelings of terrorists than about its law-abiding fat citizens; then I think, where would you go? The UK is far from being the only country attempting to exterminate fat.
I wonder how a land that prospered under fat Queen Victoria, admired fat Edward VII, and was inspired by fat Winston Churchill could come to such a pass that the morbidly meager Duchess of Cambridge is today considered the epitome of beauty and style.

Getting back to the topic at hand, I'd love to see the effect of posting calorie counts on alcoholic beverage containers. But why stop with foods and drinks? Let's put info in parking lots. Each parking space could list the number of calories burned from walking between there and the front door of a nearby shop.

richie79's picture
October 19th, 2011 | Link | Strawberry, futility I

Strawberry, futility I understand well enough. We seem to have regressed a long way from the heady days of the mid-decade, when a Forum topic on here could attract 30+ replies, the 'Sphere feed was full of lively political blogs (with new ones added daily) and it actually seemed for a short while that we could make them sit up and take notice of a robust challenge to their flawed paradigm. Too many of the radical, angry, uncompromising voices seem to have disappeared from the scene - whether similarly, ultimately defeated by the apparent unblinking acceptance at every level of the idea that fat people are THE scourge of our age, or simply silenced by the concentration on the 'here and now' of financial survival that is one of the objectives of deliberately engineered recession, is anyone's guess.

I would agree that the contrast between our past affection for fat public figures and today's open hostility to adiposity in any form serves to highlight the cultural and historical anomality of the current panic. Like immigrants and public-sector workers we've become comic-book scapegoats in a world where the complexities of public debate have been reduced to a tabloid duality of good or evil. As regards emigration, although the British media continue the constant drumbeat of obesity alarmism, right now things actually seem to be deteriorating more rapidly in a US which has very much caught up with where its transatlantic cousin was five years ago, as high-profile, self-styled 'movement leaders' like Jamie Oliver and Michelle Obama employ powerful social media to stir up a whole load of froth in 'progressive' circles which in turn is hastily translated into ill-thought out state legislation such as soda taxes and BMI report cards. Other places offer fewer prospects still - Denmark's 'fat taxes' have been the source of much debate, Bulgaria's less so, though most are familiar with Japan and its proscription of those above strict BMI and waist-size thresholds.

What's more, because it's all being framed in terms of a 'crusade' or 'call to action', everyone's now expected to hold an opinion, to pick sides - the very presentation of the whole thing as a 'war' and a matter of 'us and them' removes the options of sitting on the fence or not having strong feelings either way. To repeat a line from the new UK strategy paper, our bodies have become 'everybody's business'. And of course, the one-sided manner of the conversation thus far means that the majority of the population have been brainwashed into viewing fat as bad, a problem, a threat to be eliminated.

Oh, and "Morbidly meager" FTW. I really must remember that one Smiling

"What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right" - Albert Einstein

worrier October 19th, 2011 | Link | Emigrating to New Zealand is

Emigrating to New Zealand is not an option, New Zealand Immigration Department has rejected potential immigrants on the basis of weight. A couple of potential immigrants were featured in the media who were excellent candidates for immigration, but one was rejected solely on weight, and one rejected because of her weight and her well controlled diabetes.

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