The Evil Food Loop #TruePrue

The Evil Food Loop

I apologise if I’m telling you stuff you know, but I need to set the scene: we are the third fattest nation in Europe. Only 10% of us cook meals with fresh food at home. Thousands of households lack a kitchen. Half the children arriving at primary school cannot use a knife and fork. Diet-related diseases kill more people than smoking. 80% of amputations are caused by diabetes, a diet-related disease, and amputation is the fastest growing surgical procedure.

I’m by nature optimistic and activist, one of those irritating women who insist of fixing things. I’ve spent much of my life fussing about what we eat, the damage that junk food does, the dearth of food education, poor food in hospitals, prisons and schools. With me are thousands of dieticians, writers, chefs, charities, government task forces, think tanks and companies trying to change things. Two years ago, Henry Dimbleby wrote a report for Defra, recommending a comprehensive workable plan for reversing the tide. Needless to say, the government lacked the bottle to run with it. He then wrote the best book on the subject I’ve ever read. It’s called Ravenous, which uses his research, info and imagination to persuade the public, and Government, to act.

But I fear it won’t work. Yes, individual charities, like Food in Schools, Sustain, Food for Life, do immense good in their patch, but they cannot outpace the unstoppable trend towards more junk food, more obesity and general ill health.

So why is this? What’s wrong with cheap food that people love? Well, as Chris Tulleken in his excellent book Ultra Processed People, describes, there is an unholy conspiracy we are all trapped in. Junk food is almost irresistible. Anything deep-fried tastes great, and we are genetically programmed to love sugar, salt, fat and high-calorie foods. And ultra-processed foods (almost all manufactured products) tend to be soft, easy to eat and pretty-well addictive. We eat it fast and immediately want more. Manufacturers know this and exploit it: sugar goes into almost everything and innocent ingredients get hydrolised, homogenised, emulsified, aerated, tenderised and generally made to fit the soft, sweet, light-and-easy formula we unconsciously crave.

Junk food is cheap to make and cheap to buy, which suits both customer and manufacturer. We spend less per head on food than any European country. Our government, not wanting to act the Nanny State, taxes food high in sugar rather restrict its sale. The more chocolate, ice-cream and Coke we consume, the happier the Exchequer.

What’s more, an anxious public fuels a tsunami of supplements, diet books, health gurus, slimming products, diets regimes, personal trainers, surgical interventions, gyms, exercise machines and other magic bullets. Millions of people make their living from obesity. Even doctors depend on diet-related disorders for a good chunk of their income. And I’m paid to write about it.

I hate to admit it, but this unwitting cartel is winning the war.