Yes, we ate more in 1976, but differently. Today, we buy half as much fresh milk per person, but five times more yoghurt, three times more ice cream and – wait for it – 39 times as many dairy desserts. We buy half as many eggs as in 1976, but a third more breakfast cereals and twice the cereal snacks; half the total potatoes, but three times the crisps. While our direct purchases of sugar have sharply declined, the sugar we consume in drinks and confectionery is likely to have rocketed (there are purchase numbers only from 1992, at which point they were rising rapidly. Perhaps, as we consumed just 9kcal a day in the form of drinks in 1976, no one thought the numbers were worth collecting.) In other words, the opportunities to load our food with sugar have boomed. As some experts have long proposed, this seems to be the issue.
The shift has not happened by accident.
They employ an army of food scientists and psychologists to trick us into eating more than we need, while their advertisers use the latest findings in neuroscience to overcome our resistance.
They hire biddable scientists and thinktanks to confuse us about the causes of obesity. Above all, just as the tobacco companies did with smoking, they promote the idea that weight is a question of “personal responsibility”. After spending billions on overriding our willpower, they blame us for failing to exercise it.
In most rich nations, obesity rates are much higher at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. They correlate strongly with inequality, which helps to explain why the UK’s incidence is greater than in most European and OECD nations. The scientific literature shows how the lower spending power, stress, anxiety and depression associated with low social status makes people more vulnerable to bad diets.
Just as jobless people are blamed for structural unemployment, and indebted people are blamed for impossible housing costs, fat people are blamed for a societal problem. But yes, willpower needs to be exercised – by governments. Yes, we need personal responsibility – on the part of policymakers. And yes, control needs to be exerted – over those who have discovered our weaknesses and ruthlessly exploit them.