Rod Liddle Rod Liddle

Obesity isn’t an ‘illness’


About 20 years ago, Burger King stopped selling its magnificent Double Mushroom Swiss burger, an act of corporate vandalism matched only by the decision of Heinz to discontinue its exciting range of Toast Toppers. The Double Mushroom Swiss clocked in at 910 calories, to which you could add another 150 or so by requesting a slice of bacon with it, which I always did.

It is surely no coincidence my own weight began to rise from the time my favourite burger was scrapped

I was reminded of this delicacy when I read the ‘Global Burden of Disease’ report in the Lancet and, in particular, the news that worldwide obesity has doubled in the past 20 years, i.e. – crucially – ever since the Double Mushroom Swiss was withdrawn. This made me think a little. It is surely no coincidence that my own weight began to rise, year on year, from precisely the time that my favourite burger was scrapped (in 2004 I was a lithe 10st or so). If I were working for some perpetually carping trusts such as the Runnymede or Rowntree, I would blithely assume causality and insist that the Double Mushroom Swiss be reinstated as a human right, before, somewhere down the line, blaming Tory cuts for everyone being feckless lard-arses and diabetic to boot.

The Lancet’s report confirms that, as ever, the fattest bastards in the world live on islands, especially Pacific islands. I have read a number of scientific studies which try to blame whitey for the fact that Tongans and Samoans can scarcely waddle into the nearest lagoon without wheezing and dropping dead from a heart attack. We forced them into eating food which was bad for them, apparently. But it is rather more the case that the Polynesians and Melanesians much prefer the highly processed, fatty food which is imported from the nearest mainlands. They could, if they wished, return to their traditional diets of taro, limpets and gently sautéed hermit crabs – but they choose not to do so.

The determination to blame white people for every ill which has ever existed in the world denies agency to those South Sea islanders and so is, by definition, racist. It is worth pointing out too that in Hawaii (more islands in the Pacific) the local delicacy is spam, a very fattening product indeed. They eat tons of the stuff. As a consequence, Hawaii is the healthiest US state, with an average life expectancy more than a year ahead of its closest rival. The stats, then, are a lot more complex than those who interpret them would have you believe.

About half of the world’s population are pigging out, while the rest – Africa, bits of China and India – are still largely malnourished. It made me wonder if there was a kind of Goldilocks moment when the British people were neither generally starving nor generally overweight – perhaps the summer of 1942, when rationing really began to take hold and we were all eating Woolton pies and forced to eschew meat and dairy products.

I do not doubt that obesity is a problem for the developed world, even if it is a rather more congenial one than that which faces the Africans. The problem we have in dealing with it is the domination of the debate by people who are basically Marxists, by implication if not always ideology. It may well be that Marxism, as an economic system, has been exposed as fantastically inefficient, cruel and soul-destroying, and exists as a force in only one of the world’s 196 countries. But boy, does it hold sway when we are discussing social issues, despite the fact that its shibboleths and injunctions here are every bit as lumpen and misguided as are its economic imperatives.

For the majority who study obesity, it is once again all about ‘conflict’, about power relations. This is how those afore-mentioned researchers can insist that white colonialism imposed a rotten diet upon the poor Pacific islanders to such an extent that if Paul Gauguin were painting the Tahitian women folk today, he’d need a canvas the size of those used by Rubens. By the same token, white colonialism has imposed upon the Africans decades of malnutrition – and chronically bad self-governance and a lack of farming know-how etc have nothing whatsoever to do with it.

Likewise, in the West, obesity has been imposed upon the populations and especially the poorest of those populations by the rapacity and greed of capitalism. Once again, personal agency and responsibility have been chopped out of the equation: the poor eat that mass-produced crap because they are ‘time poor’ and are scammed into dangerous diets by the gratification occasioned by sugar and salt, which is cunningly provided by the big food corporations.

‘He said don’t make him look all King Charlesy.’

The problem with this approach is that it inculcates in the individual a rather stupid sense of victimhood – the notion that he is not remotely to blame for the fact that he has tits the size of Christina Hendricks’s, blood pressure of 180/90mmHg and the liquid fat from his gut could fill a medium-sized swimming pool. As a consequence, instead of taking control of his own situation, the obese individual is enjoined to blame other (malevolent) actors for his misfortune. Big agri. The food producers. And always, somewhere down the line, the government (and thus the taxpayer) for not doing something about it, for not providing him with some ectoplasmic form of help.

This sense of victimhood increases every year until at last the front wall of his house is demolished and a crane is dispatched to carry him to hospital. I am not a libertarian, but the insistence that obesity is an ‘illness’ which has been imposed upon people against their will is a terrible stupidity which can only possibly result in the problem getting worse and worse. When the world is seen in such an infantile context, always through the prism of power relations, then the fat bastards really do have no hope.