As snacking looks set to be banned on public transport, Sue Quinn explains how modern eating habits sent our waistlines spiralling
How long has it been since you ate something? Was it hours ago, or mere moments? Perhaps you’re enjoying a little something right now, and if that’s the case you might want to put it aside. Because we need talk about snacking and the conversation won’t be appetising. Yesterday, two new reports set out – in stark and shocking relief – the state of our bulging waistlines in Britain, and the effect the growing obesity crisis is having on our children, our health and the economy. In her parting shot as chief medical officer for England, Dame Sally Davies pulled no punches in her final report, detailing the galloping rate of child obesity in Britain and its consequences.
“Today’s children are drowning in a flood of unhealthy food and drink options,” she said, going on to paint a sickening picture of the state of our children’s health. On average, six children in a class of 30 are now obese, and four are overweight – twice as many as 30 years ago. As a result, cases of type-2 diabetes, considered an adults-only disease in England as recently as 2000, are now diagnosed in children at a rate of 100 cases per year, which can rapidly progress to kidney failure, sight damage and leg ulcers.
One particularly sobering and poignant statistic (among a slew) revealed that rotten teeth are now the most common cause for children to be hospitalised in Britain, with 738 each week – enough to fill 13 school buses – admitted for extractions due to decay. At the same time, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported that more than half the population in 34 of 36 member countries is overweight, and nearly one in four people are now obese – equivalent to an extra 50 million people.
Reduced life expectancy, impaired economic growth, and a bill totalling $311 billion per year to treat the associated health conditions are among the many costs. And where does the UK fit in? Depressingly, at nearly one adult in three, we have one of the highest rates of obesity in the OECD. The question is, what happened to us? Look back in your family photo album to pictures taken at the beach pre-1970s and it’s true what many others have observed: Britain looked like a different country back then.
Everyone was whippet-thin, lean of muscle with ribs clearly showing: overweight and obesity were a rarity not a common characteristic. Did we simply eat less and lead more active labour-intensive lives? Actually, it’s not that simple. Government statistics show our forebears consumed more calories, not fewer, than we do now: an average 2,590 kcal in 1976 compared with 2,130 now. The key difference is the shift in what we eat and how we eat it.
According to historian and food writer Bee Wilson in her book The Way We Eat Now, at no point in our history has food been so easy to obtain. While this has been beneficial in many ways, the net result has been disastrous because of the kinds of foods now tempting us everywhere we turn. “The rise of obesity and diet-related disease around the world has happened hand in hand with the marketing of fast food and sugary sodas, of processed meats and branded snack foods,” she writes. “What has changed most since the 60s is not our collective willpower, but the marketing and availability of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods.” Wilson reports that sales of fast food grew by 30 per cent worldwide from 2011 to 2016, and sales of packaged food grew by a quarter.
Somewhere in the world, a new branch of Domino’s Pizza opened every seven hours in 2016. Professor Ian Givens, director of the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health at Reading University, says the reasons for skyrocketing obesity are complex, but agrees the rise of sugary foods lacking in nutrients can shoulder at least some of the blame. “The rise in sugar-rich drinks has probably played a part, although there are lots of things other than drinks that have added sugar,” he says. “And carbohydrate-rich foods have a less satiating effect than protein. Breakfasts, for example, used to be protein-rich, they are now carbohydrate-rich.”
Muffin and coffee grabbed en-route to the bus stop, sound familiar? The amount of food choices today are overwhelming: just look around. The only shops surviving on Britain’s rapidly declining high streets are restaurants and bars, coffee shops and takeaway food outlets doing a brisk trade in food and drink, much of it unhealthy food. And while we’re dying from diet-related health conditions the food-to-go sector, comprising food and drinks served over the counter, is in rude health.
One of the fastest growing food categories, it’s expected to grow by more than 26 per cent between now and 2024 to more than £23 billion. It’s little wonder that constantly eating has become the new normal: we can’t go anywhere without putting food in our mouths.
Whether it’s tucking into the food trolley on a short train or plane journey, a trip to the cinema or a meet-up with friends, it’s become almost impossible to do anything without eating something while we’re doing it. Dame Sally Davies is keenly aware of this. Her most headline grabbing recommendation was for the government to take radical action, just as it did by making seatbelts mandatory in cars, and ban eating on public transport. It might smack of the nanny state, but the proposal has its supporters. Professor Ivo Vlaev, a behavioural scientist at Warwick University who has worked with Public Health England and the Department of Health, says the ban would tackle the heart our snacking habit.
“Banning snacks on local transport will normalise the behaviour of not snacking between meals, just as the ban on smoking in public has helped to cut smoking and normalise not smoking. I can see this having the same effect.,” he says. Dame Sally also suggests phasing out advertising of unhealthy food and drink to extend the message that snacking is bad for our children’s health. “Overall, there is good scientific evidence to back-up these proposals and to believe they might well succeed in reducing the growing problem of child obesity,” Prof Vlaev says. It sure is food for thought.