There is a reluctance on the left to engage in what one might call the ‘obesity debate’. Too often, it is hijacked by agents of bad faith who are simply in it as a justification for fat-shaming, and also because of well-founded fears that it plays into the hands of toxic weight-loss industries.

However it’s usually pretty easy to spot those who talk about obesity in bad faith, rather than because of any actual concern for human wellbeing. The first sign is when they bring in a ‘moral’ dimension to the debate — making claims about how one’s character, virtue, or worth are linked to one’s weight.

These pundits reduce the issue to one of personal responsibility, arguing that to solve the problem of obesity people just need to eat less and exercise more.

It is time to reclaim and reframe this debate.


The truth about obesity

Being obese is nothing to do with ones virtue, or ones character. It also has nothing to do with a person’s worth. Obesity is, however, a very real and very worrying health epidemic that is largely a result of economic oppression and food industry lobbying. If we avoid this incredibly important conversation for the sake of keeping our hands clean, and out of fear of being lumped in with fat-shamers and the like, then we let down the very people we claim to stand for.

Our starting point is that obesity disproportionately affects low-income people. And it is killing them. Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England said: ‘Obesity is the new smoking’. With figures from 2018 showing dietary factors surpassing smoking as the biggest cause of illnesses across the country (10.8 per cent compared to 10.7 per cent), this isn’t simply hyperbole. 

The obesity crisis is a ticking time bomb for the country’s public health services. As Stevens’ states: ‘it is a slow-motion car crash in terms of avoidable illness and rising health care costs’. Unless drastic action is taken now, this crisis will end up costing tens of thousands of lives and billions of pounds.

Crucially, we see a much higher rise in incidences of obesity amongst the disadvantaged, and in the most deprived areas of the country. In fact, more than twice as many children in deprived areas are obese compared to those in affluent areas.

The rise in obesity is said to mainly result from the fact that we are consuming more sugar than ever before. Interestingly, every single demographic in the country is consuming more sugar than the recommended amount, with those under the age of 18 consuming three times the recommended level.

Cutting down on sugar seems to be the number one priority to tackling this problem. An official report by Public Health England states that the NHS could save £15 billion pounds and 80,000 lives in a generation if as a nation we cut our sugar consumption down to the recommended amount.

Where the left must reframe the debate is on how this should be done. The bad faith agents we were talking about earlier would probably put this burden on individuals, saying we need to change our eating habits. This however is not a good solution. And just because it is an inherently classist position to take, but because it completely misunderstands the problem and brings it no closer to a solution.

Economic predators

It is true that we are all consuming more sugar than we should, but this is not simply the result of individual choice. Instead, the reasons are largely economic.

Several reasons explain the rise in consumption of food and drink which is high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS). One is excessive advertisement of HFSS foods, especially their targeting and effectiveness amongst young children and teenagers. Another is supermarket design (what is placed where), and the promotional offers shops make. 

However, compounding these factors, is poverty and inequality. With almost every factor that has influenced the current obesity epidemic, the role of class dramatically exacerbate each contributing factor. This means that the problem of obesity is most severe amongst communities which are at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.

As already explained, excessive advertising has seen a sharp increase in the consumption of HFSS food and drink. A study from Liverpool University found that children are seeing up to 12 high in fat, sugar and salt adverts per hour on TV.

Research presented to Parliament suggests that the poorest children are being exposed to almost twice as many of these adverts compared with the most affluent. One reason for this is that it seems fast food companies are deliberately targeting poorer areas. This makes a lot of sense given that deprived areas ‘have five times more fast food outlets’ than affluent ones. 

Healthy food is costly

Despite what some might say, it is often cheaper in the short-term to buy unhealthy food. In fact, it has been found that unhealthy food is three times cheaper than healthy food per kcal in UK supermarkets.

A report found that: ‘the poorest 10% of UK households would need to spend 74% of their disposable income on food to meet the Eatwell Guide costs. This is compared to only 6% in the richest 10%’. Making matters worse, the cost of food as a percentage of income has also been on the rise in recent years.

The majority of discounted food and drink items in supermarkets are high in fat, sugar and also salt. Considering that in 2015, 40 per cent of the food and drink people purchased was on promotion, that is a large amount of unhealthy food being bought — particularly if you have to rely on discounts and budget shopping. Cancer Research UK also published data showing that shoppers who buy more of their food and drink on promotion tend to purchase more HFSS products, and in greater volume.

Reducing the number of fast and junk food places in deprived areas is one proposed solution. This has been suggested by Public Health England, where authorities are being asked to reject new applications for takeaways in hotspot areas. 

The sugar tax also led to many companies reformulating their sugary drinks, so as to reduce the amount of sugar in them. And we’ve all been made aware of the government’s proposed ‘ban’ on junk food adverts shown before the 9 p.m. curfew. Plans are also being made to completely ban junk food adverts online. Further proposed actions include getting rid of certain promotional food and drink offers. 

Problems of poverty

These are certainly welcome steps, but their impact will be limited if they ignore the underlying factors of obesity: poverty and inequality.

Simply getting rid of certain promotional food and drink items will only disproportionately affect the wallets of poorer people. People who often rely on special deals to feed themselves and their families. 

The other issue is that poorer people are less likely to have the time to prepare healthy meals. They may also not always have access to certain types of food storage, such as freezers — something which landlords are under no legal obligation to supply. 

Those on lower incomes are more likely to work odd hours or even multiple jobs, in order to make ends meet. For some, cooking is a relaxing pastime but can be stressful if you’re experiencing the traumas of poverty. This is why ready meals and the like become a far more appealing alternative.

Health inequality

There is ever growing evidence that a multitude of health problems affect the affluent and the less affluent in disproportionate ways. This suggest that socio-economic conditions often play a steady role in one’s level of health.

Research suggests that poor material circumstances and the psychosocial stresses this brings, may reduce people’s resilience to diseases and impact biological processes, such as one’s metabolism.

We can find comparable examples of this tendency with alcohol abuse. Although alcohol abuse is equally common amongst the affluent as well as the less affluent, it has nonetheless been found to affect poorer people’s health more.

For those on the left; we must claim and reframe the debate on obesity. If we are to solve this problem as a society, reducing harmful advertising or cutting food costs is not enough. We need to shine a spotlight on the source of this epidemic; our vastly unequal socioeconomic system.