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July 29, 2020   5 mins

Over the past few months, my waistband has been slowly but irrevocably expanding. I now look as if I have been melted and poured into my trousers, when before they were merely ‘snug’. There is no give left. I asked the scales and they didn’t lie: I have this year added around five kilograms to my formerly willowy frame.

In normal times I might shrug and attempt to rectify the situation by taking the stairs, instead of the lift, or with a lazy trip to the shops in search of a bigger waistband. But, alas, these are not normal times; according to new research from the Government, the more bulk I put on, the greater my risk of becoming seriously ill if I contract Covid-19. I’ve no choice but to lose this extra upholstery — and swiftly.

I’m not alone. A study by King’s College London found that almost half (48%) of those questioned admitted they had put on weight during lockdown. Boris Johnson, too, says he was “way overweight” when he contracted the virus. And just under two-thirds (63%) of adults in Britain are officially classed as overweight or obese; the UK has consistently ranked as one of Europe’s fattest nations.

Following his brush with death, the PM has undergone something of a damascene conversion. Once at the head of the charge against the nannying approach to tackling obesity; now he is wringing his hands, urging us to “do our bit” and fight that flab.

Partly in response to the pandemic, but also concerned with the nation’s health as a whole, the Government has unveiled a series of measures to tackle this obesity ‘time bomb’. So we have a ban on junk food advertising before the 9pm ‘watershed’, along with a prohibition on supermarket two-for-one offers. Calorie counts will also need to be added to menus in chain restaurants and cafes that employ over 250 people.

Tackling the junk food ads must have looked like an easy win. They currently appear up to nine times an hour at children’s peak viewing times. And kids who watched over three hours of television per day were almost three times more likely to buy junk food products than children who watched little or no television.

The usual caveats about correlation not implying causation apply, but if this advertising were not effective, food manufacturers wouldn’t spend such vast sums pumping it out — and targeting children in particular. Pester power is strong. I remember tugging on my own mother’s arm as a boy: pleading with her to buy me sweets and crisps after I had seen advertisements by cartoon characters with catchy theme tunes in-between episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine and Rainbow.

But it does feel rather like a tinkering around the edges. Of course a clampdown on hawking junk food to children is to be welcomed, but it also completely ignores the fact that people pile on weight for reasons beyond mere awareness of the existence of the biggest junk food brands.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the Government’s new zeal for fat fighting, though, is how it fights against its strategy to pump life back into Britain’s moribund economy. We have been urged, of late, to ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ and have been offered cut price grub in restaurants. But surely encouraging people to up their spending and consumption (quite literally) is at odds with asking them to also slim down. And, in a further contradiction, the Government’s own ‘Enjoy Summer Safely’ radio ads are encouraging people to “grab fish and chips on the beach”. It’s true that eating out needn’t be synonymous with eating unhealthily; yet it very often is.

The chaotic response just shows that the Government doesn’t have a clue about our everyday lives and what we do — or don’t — have on our plates. Tackling overeating is actually much far more complicated than simply telling people to make healthier food choices and eat less. Take the King’s College survey which found us eating more during lockdown. It also determined that the same percentage of us (48%) are feeling more anxious and depressed than usual. We’re stressed, often without productive work, and generally confined to the house. As a consequence, we’re more likely to pig-out.

The relationship between enforced worklessness and obesity won’t come as news to some parts of the country. Britain’s fattest regions tend to be those places where industry was wound down at break-neck speed in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the north east and the west midlands. Conversely, Britain’s thinnest areas are the affluent London boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea and Richmond upon Thames.

As our working lives have changed, so our eating habits have evolved. We work some of the longest hours in Europe and it tells: British households spend around half as much time preparing an evening meal today as they did in the 1980s. Researching my book on low-paid work in 2016, one of the most striking aspects was the steady deterioration of my diet. As I wrote in Hired:

“When we walked through the door at midnight at the end of a shift, we kicked off our boots and collapsed onto our beds with a bag of McDonald’s and a can of beer. We did not
 come home and stand about in the kitchen for half an hour boiling broccoli.”

The paternalistic Left feels that healthy food is ‘more expensive’. Yet the main difference is really found in the time and knowledge it takes to prepare nourishing food. One in four people in Britain knows only three recipes and one in 10 cannot cook at all. Many of those asked blamed hectic lifestyles for their lack of culinary knowledge. Calory-dense food is not necessarily cheaper but it is usually easier to stick in a microwave with minimal fuss or boil quickly on a hob.

This is not to say that poverty does not have a direct impact on what people eat. Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy argues that “the best way to tackle food poverty is to tackle poverty”. It adds: “When funds run short, it is often spending on food that gets cut first”. It also warns of a new wave of poverty as firms let large number of workers go because of the Covid-19 downturn. “The data already show an alarming increase in food insecurity,” the report warns. “The number of people saying they could not afford enough food rose slightly over the same period, from 1.7 million to 1.8 million in May, presumably as redundancies started to be made.”

Junk food advertising may influence our buying habits but the main drivers of obesity are overwhelmingly structural. The type and amount of food we eat is an individual choice; however every choice is made in a wider environmental context. How much you weigh is determined more by where you live and what type of job you do than how many adverts for hamburgers and Mars bars you are exposed to in-between episodes of Coronation Street.

Structural change is a longer game though. And with another round of a deadly virus on the horizon, time is not something the Government has in abundance; no wonder sanctimonious compulsion is the order of the day.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.