How to combat obesity?
How to combat obesity? It's still a question with no single answer - and the experts remain divided. I found myself this month on The Wright Stuff TV show (FIVE 9.15 am) debating whether we should stick off-putting images of fat people onto junk food at the point of sale - just as the government now pictures diseased lungs on packs of cigarettes. Would it have any impact on your shopping habits if, on your favourite mass-produced and shrink wrapped pizza, there was a picture of an enormously obese man with the caption "eat too many of these and you'll end up looking like this!"? The funny thing is, I actually think it would. Everyone on the panel agreed they'd be reluctant to put such items in their supermarket trolleys, and that their kids would mind more about the "fat and ugly" threat than the number of E numbers contained within, or the worrying tabel of fat, sugar and salt content.
Of course, this whole debate presupposes it's even feasible that the food industry would allow it, or that any politicians would be able to make up their minds about what is, and isn't, junk food and then enforce such health warnings! But perhaps we should entertain the idea at least, because of its potential power. Image may be a very powerful tool in the fight to ram the correct message home in the reluctant mind of the average consumer! We are a society driven, obsessed and massively influenced by image. So let's use it.
For my recent book, Winning The Fat War, about the global obesity epidemic, I interviewed Desmond Morris, famous anthropologist and author of the ground-breaking "The Naked Ape" back in the 60s, which first made us think about mankind as just another species and not so very different from chimps and orang-utangs. He said one of the reasons we, as a society, are so unkind to fat people, is because we are programmed to fear and dread obesity. Why? Because it is bad for us, and genetically undesirable. Just as Neolithic man learned to ostracise the fellow cave dweller with disease and deformity, so he also would have "deselected" the fat one. Please don't think for a minute I am likening obesity to disease or deformity. It just helps to understand the problem, if we are ever going to learn to solve it.
So if the image of obesity is a natural turn-off to us, why not use it? Certainly we need something stronger than common sense, and perhaps even education. I was profoundly moved, and depressed by a recent Jamie Oliver programme ( the series he made in USA) where he demonstrated an experiment that he says, never fails with British children. He shows them a chicken, fresh from the supermarket. And he dissects it, with butcher's precision, showing them the good bits - breast, legs and wings. Fair enough, the kids are thinking, that's meat. Then he chops up the carcass, sinew and skin and asks them what they think of that. Ugh, they yell. Then he puts it into a food processor and grinds the "ugh" ingredients into a pink, glutinous, revolting pulp. He takes a handful, and offers it to the children. They scream and jump back. Then he forms it into a patty, covers it in breadcrumbs, fries it in a pan and invites them to eat. They all want one. (Unlike the Brits apparently, who still hate the idea!) Like Jamie's, my face fell and I almost burst into tears for him. Those children were so programmed, through their culture and over years of tv advertising, to see a fried golden nugget as desirable, that knowing what was actually inside it didn't put them off! And I think, to a certain extent, we're all a bit like that.
We need more than common sense, more than education. We need re-programming. Or we'll end up like the fat man stuck on the pizza - serving as a warning to others!