Friday 7 October 2011

A diet of anxiety

Myths and Realities: ‘We’ve never had to so good? Food and Diet in the UK’, British Library, London, 21 September 2011

As part of the British Library’s series of Social Science Myths and Realities series, a public debate was held asking, ‘We’ve never had it so good? Food and Diet in the UK’, which attempted to address the everyday issues around food such as food scares, obesity and public health intervention.

Never before have people been bombarded with so much information concerning food and health. Whether it be the campaign for standardised food labelling, calorie counting at McDonalds or seemingly endless public health campaigns of the government, claimed the first speaker, Wendy Wills from the University of Hertfordshire. She then went on to add that despite all this, people generally are not following the advice or listening to it. Obesity and people ‘overweight’, according to the Body Mass Index measurement, are increasing.

The problem is that using BMI as a measure of obesity isn’t very helpful. BMI fails to take into account where fat is stored or does not distinguish between muscle and fat. The result is that people can be classed as overweight or even obese, even if the majority of their weight is from muscle. Simply being ‘overweight’ is also not a particular cause for concern, considering that some studies show that those with a bit of extra body fat sometimes are more healthy and live longer than those with less.

Wills then went on to point out that part of the problem for the failing of public health policies is the gap between how public health policy makers view people. The policy makers tend to view people as severed vessels or objects, just waiting to be filled up with food and nudged to take the right choices, rather than as making people. Therefore, Wills’ claim, public health policy is wrong to focus on trying to devise behaviour intervention policies for those deemed to be eating too much.

Nevertheless, the problem itself is not how public health policies are approached, but rather the idea of ‘public health policies’ to begin with. It shouldn’t be the role of the government or any related institution to try to change peoples eating habits, even if they are quite reckless and dangerous to themselves. If a few people wish to eat themselves into supposedly an earlier grave, that is an individual lifestyle choice. It may not be a choice to either be applauded or celebrated, but it is the choice of the individual, and should not be micromanaged by governments or public health groups.

Peter Jackson of the University of Sheffield spoke next. According to him we live an age of anxiety, and naturally this extends to food. This was shown by a poll conducted injunction with the European Union that claims that over half of the EU citizens are worried about food being less safe, and 68% worried about the freshness of food.

The cause for this supposed anxiety around food, Jackson claims, is a relatively new one. The rise of intensive factory farming and the concentration of food retailers into a few large supermarkets supposedly is the cause of this anxiety. Whether or this really is the cause of an increased anxiety about food, if there really is such a rise, there is no need for people to fear these new features of food production and consumption.

Intensive farming may make some people unaffordable with the inhumane treatment of the chickens, however, how do you apply a ‘humane’ way for killing an animal; or does it even make any sense treating something non-human in a ‘humane’ way? Putting that aside, intensive factory farming has allowed us to produce more, for cheaper. This means that ordinary people can afford to enjoy at every meal or on a regular basis, and certain foods are no longer the delicacies of the upper classes. Surely having access to relatively cheap meat should make people less anxious about food.

This point is further extended to peoples supposed anxieties surrounding the concentration of food retail into a few large supermarkets. Large scale supermarkets such as Tesco have allowed people access to more food for much cheaper. The concentration of food retail into the single supermarket, replacing the individual butcher, green grocer and other small shops has greatly reduced the time it takes to purchase food. Whereas food shopping before took up significant time going to individual small shops for different categories of food, these can now all be found in one place, allowing for a weekly shop to be completed in an hour or two. Surely not having to rush between small shops to purchase food should create less anxiety concerning food?

People may be failing to follow guidelines of what to eat and how much of it, and the approach of those who make public health policy is certainly something to be condemned. The issue itself is the idea of there being ‘public health policy’, attempting to manage and change peoples individual lifestyle choices, even if we wouldn’t want to emulate them. Concerning peoples supposed anxiety about food, now more than ever, at least in the Western world, with access to cheap food on a large scale that is easy to access; we have no need for any sort of food anxiety. Indeed we have, ‘never had it so good’.

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