Obesity is a class issue

Photo; Joe Gordon

Using my eight-minute walk to the station to reflect on the Tories’ anti- obesity strategy I passed a chip shop, a branch of an omnipresent national sandwich chain offering all sorts of “sweet treats”, two of the type of Chinese restaurants that offer chips with curry sauce, and four other places offering a mix of fried chicken, kebabs and pizzas of varieties never seen in Italy writes Andy Stowe.  

A brief stop at a motorway service station earlier in the week provided the option of KFC, a multi-national coffee chain with displays of cakes, cookies, muffins and biscuits and shops selling an infinite range of sugary drinks, sweets and crisps. A day in a coastal resort left me convinced that by law chips had to be on the menu of every food outlet in the town. 

All this cheap food is served by people earning something like the minimum wage.  

This is an economic model based on selling high calorie, unhealthy food to people on low incomes. It’s not, as the right argue that “we have lost any sense of personal responsibility for our health”.  

About one third of British adults are clinically obese and a similar number of children under 11 are obese or overweight. Is this down to some peculiar defect that makes them more likely to eat badly than the rest of Europe? Only the population of Malta is heavier. Are they less aware of the health impacts of carrying too much weight or this there something about the availability of cheap food? 


The frozen family favourites section of Sainsbury’s website offers two frozen pizzas (cheese and carbohydrate) for £2 and a 1.4kg bag of frozen chips for £3.20. The processed food industry is geared to making profits out of creating things that are actively detrimental to the health of the people who eat them. A low wage economy obliges families to buy them. This is not a question of personal choices, it’s a political question about how wealth is distributed and food production is regulated. 

Buy a packet of cigarettes and the box has a graphic photo showing how smoking destroys your body. Buy a packet of Walkers Wotsits GIANTS Really Cheesy Snacks (reduced from £2 to £1 for a 130g pack) and it’s in a bag specifically designed to be attractive to children as their parents take them around the supermarket. 

It is self-evident that the state needs to intervene to make it easier for people to have access to food that will nourish rather than harm them. It’s equally self-evident that the Johnson government has dusted off plans that the Tories have kept on the shelf for years. We are being invited to believe that Johnson’s own recent near-death experience is the reason for this new focus on healthy eating, exercise, personal responsibility and minor legislative tinkering. It’s more likely that they are using the public sympathy he may have gained from that to help us forget that the British coronavirus death toll is now edging towards 50 000.  

What the Tories are proposing is incoherent and inadequate. Throughout August they are running a scheme to actively incentivise people to eat in major chain restaurants selling the worst sorts of processed industrial food by giving them £10 vouchers. A proposed ban on junk food TV adverts is at least two years away (and it’s by no means certain Johnson will still be prime minister after the coming winter Covid spike). Some time in the next year the major chains will be obliged to tell you how many calories will be in your burger and chips, but the small outlets which are a dead giveaway of poverty levels in a neighbourhood won’t.  

There will be a lot of moralising about personal responsibility, but no taking into account the fact that food banks hand out 1.6 million parcels a year or the low wage households who have no choice but to eat frozen chips and pizza to fill themselves up. Just look at the food parcels that the government themselves contracted – not only are they offensive to people who don’t eat pork – or indeed any meat – but they are full of white bread and sugary snacks. And there are lots of reports of people receiving fruit and vegetables that have started to rot. It’s no accident that The Lancet reports “lower social class was associated with increased absolute risk of overweight or obesity at age 15 years”. 

Food culture 

Perhaps more than anywhere else in Europe the streets of British cities are homogenised and indistinguishable. Big brewery chains run the pubs, snack chains sell crisps, fizzy drinks and crisps, councils can’t limit the number of fried food outlets. Most small local supermarkets are run by a handful of major groups which fill the shelves with cheap, processed food in which it’s frequently hard to find anything that’s not rammed full of additives and sugars. For families without the money to buy anything of better quality or the means to travel somewhere they can find it, there is no choice but to eat things which cause health problems. 

Obesity is often a proxy indicator of poverty, mental health issues or both in Britain. For all their talk of a “levelling up”, the Tories have never in their decade in government shown a serious effort to address either. Their current “war on obesity” is nothing but window dressing and distraction.  

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3 Comments on Obesity is a class issue

  1. Caroline Carney // 28th July 2020 at 9:51 pm // Reply

    Speaking as someone who is morbidly obese I can agree with everything said here. I have had clinical depression since I was a small child due to sexual abuse. After a break up for which I had changed my life and country for I turned to food to fill the hole, I felt in me. It has taken most of my life and a great deal of therapy to get to the point where I was able to say no I don’t need to eat that. I am on the waiting list for keyhole bariatric surgery and when I have it I will no longer be diabetic and will be able to have physiotherapy for my Osteoporosis. The economic factors in obesity are exactly as you say and the perfect example is New Zealand. The Maori community in NZ is suffering an epidemic of morbid obesity. Their communities are often poor and live in rural areas were buying lots of healthy fruit and veg is very expensive but never fear they have a takeaway of some sort on every corner sometimes 5 in a row. It is the deliverance of capitalism to put profit over health and if our NHS is sold many of us will be deemed useless and not get medical insurance at the level we need due to pre-existing conditions

  2. Good article. You could add the ramifications of fuel poverty, which limits cooking options. This is why people can’t make nourishing homemade stews and soups with crusty bread straight out of the oven. A bogof offer on doughnuts may have to do some days. Jack Monroe is good on this.

  3. Darryl Jones // 29th July 2020 at 8:15 pm // Reply

    I agree that problems like obesity and diabetes are linked to poverty.In response to Caroline’s comments I would just like to say these problems are commonplace amongst other indigenous groups who have been colonised. Two obvious groups are native Americans and aborigines in Australia. Both groups have also experienced systemic racism.The other point I would like to make is. We really need to nail the Tories on their fake concern about public health after there previous cutbacks in this area along welfare benefits and mental health. It is disappointing that we can’t rely on Keir Starmer and his shadow cabinet to do this.

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