Friday 1 April 2016, Rossa Minogue

Chewing the facts: what’s the truth of the obesity crisis?

Podcast: listen to this debate from our Battle of Ideas archive.

With the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, having recently announced a sugary drinks tax and the Lancet publishing new figures claiming that 38 per cent of UK adults will be obese by 2025, what is the truth about obesity? This archive debate was recorded at the Battle of Ideas 2013.

According to ‘Reducing Obesity and Improving Diet’, a policy document produced by the Department of Health in March 2013, most people in England are overweight or obese - 61.3% of adults and 30% of children aged between 2 and 15. The associated health problems are costing the NHS, it is claimed, more than £5 billion every year. The reasons given for people ‘going large’ are not always clear, and numerous reasons have been suggested: that the modern Western diet is too high in carbohydrates / fat / sugar [delete as appropriate], that we no longer sit down together for a home-cooked family meal, but graze all day or eat ready-meals in front of the TV, that we don’t cook anymore so our understanding of nutrition and seasonality is lacking, that we drink too many fizzy drinks, that processed food is as addictive and we have become food junkies. To tackle the problem, there have been numerous government health initiatives, and doctors and health organisations have called for a wide array of health interventions, including sugar and fat taxes. While these make headlines, it seems they’ve failed to affect our waistlines, with some predicting that obesity will continue to rise and place further strain on the NHS.

On the other hand, studies show the number of people who are overweight or obese has not risen for over a decade, and there are concerns that school health campaigns are making our children unhealthily weight-obsessed. Some studies even suggest those labelled ‘category 1 obese’ are likely to be just as healthy as those deemed ‘normal’. So what’s the truth behind the obesity epidemic - are we right to be worried about becoming a nation of fatties? Is being fat necessarily a harbinger of ill health and early death? Just what is making us more obese? And do we all need a nudge to make sure we fill up our plates with carrots and stick with the gym?

Henry Dimbleby

co-founder, Leon Restaurants; co-author, School Food Plan

Rob Lyons
science and technology director, IoI

Dr Angelica Michelis
senior lecturer, Department of English, Manchester Metropolitan University; author, Eating Theory: the theory of eating (forthcoming)

Jane Ogden
professor in health psychology, University of Surrey; author, The Good Parenting Food Guide’ (forthcoming)

Jason Smith

associate fellow, IoI

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