The Obesity Panic: The rise of the food police

It is hard to miss the explicit scaremongering of the latest Safefood adverts aimed at parents who – God forbid! – allow their child the occasional treat.

According to the European Union (the masterminds behind Safefood), this needs to be policed and, ultimately, prevented. The ad – featuring children who become heavier and heavier every time we see them – alerts parents to the allegedly dire consequences of engaging in the unthinkable act of allowing their son or daughter a biscuit or two.

In a society as fat-shaming as our own, of course, stark images of overweight children are going to send the most powerful message. This is not only in poor taste, it misses the point – not all children who drink fizzy drinks will end up obese, just as not all children who have a higher than average body mass are physically unhealthy. Since when was fruit juice the devil incarnate? And yet, these ads are by no means a one-off. The wider debate about obesity generally and childhood obesity in particular has grown out of all proportion to the problem. Guilt over what we eat is actively encouraged. While some of us may class this as a worrying development, the powers that be seem perfectly happy to carry on down this path.

Just look at the latest call for a sugar tax by England’s chief medical officer. The proposed tax will disproportionately target those from poorer backgrounds. This is against a backdrop of food poverty apparently so severe that there are calls to have it deemed a public health emergency; and despite an increasing reliance on food banks, stories about children going to bed hungry and rising numbers being treated for malnutrition. Still, government harps on about cutting back on the chocolate.

Of course, obesity can be a risk factor for certain illnesses. But there has to be a better way to target those of us that present with such problems than an increasingly intrusive national campaign. Whatever happened to balance? Instead of bombarding us with what we shouldn’t eat, why isn’t the message ‘everything in moderation’? Or why not just let us make up our own minds? Indoctrinating young children with such a dysfunctional view of food can only create very real problems for them, as figures showing the rise in pre-teens treated for eating disorders suggest.

On that note, these health promotion experts should probably think a little more about who their messages are actually targeting. Let’s face it, if all you can afford is sugary snacks, an advert is not going to change your mind. Hike a sugar tax onto the poorest and they go hungry or look for the cheapest alternative (likely to be something salty, processed and arguably just as ‘bad’ as the sugar).  Equally, if you – or your child – have a problem with compulsive overeating, it is going to take a lot more than a public campaign to sort it out.

So let’s a little more compassion and understanding for those with genuine problems, not condescension and stigmatisation for the rest of us.

Written by Anna Carnegie. The Social Policy Forum challenges social policy by stealth in the age of the Big Nudge. We are on Twitter @SocialPolicyFor

Picture by: Walter Siegmund