Food for thought from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on the battle with obesity

In a new TV series, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall examines how consumers are being misled and bombarded by marketing and advertising. Grace Hammond reports.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a prominent TV chef and campaigner. (PA).
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a prominent TV chef and campaigner. (PA).

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is on another mission, perhaps his most important yet. Following his war on waste and his battle for fairer fishing, the TV chef and campaigner is now shining a light on Britain’s obesity crisis.

In a new BBC series, Britain’s Fat Fight with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – which he hopes will “create a bit of mischief and shake things up” – he asks the questions that matter: Why are we eating so much? How has Britain found itself one of the most obese countries in Europe? And how can we turn the tables before it’s too late?

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“The life force that sustains us is food, and it has the capacity to bring such pleasure and joy,” he says. “But it is almost to the point where it is doing more harm than good.”

He reels off just some of the statistics, and they make for uncomfortable reading. “When you get to the point where two-thirds of the population are overweight or obese, a quarter of the population are clinically obese, 30 per cent of us are pre-diabetic ... you realise this is a problem that won’t just gently resolve,” he says.

As Fearnley-Whittingstall, 53, discovers, there may be far more to the nation’s weight gain than just greed or laziness.

Across three episodes, he explores a number of factors that have contributed to the obesity crisis. “One thing is certain it is not just individual action and inspiration and willpower that will turn this around. It’s a complex issue, and not just one thing has gone wrong,” he says.

He challenges the big corporations whose food labelling methods – from colourful packaging to the lack of transparency in nutritional information displays – leave consumers confused.

Highlighting how much sugar is often unknowingly packed into big-brand cereals, he shocks a group of parents when they realise the volume of the white stuff their children are consuming daily.

“I think that there is a danger of a big section of the population being left behind,” he says.

“They are not necessarily being left behind because they are not interested. They are being left behind because the communities they live in are left behind.”

The marketing tactics sometimes used to sell unwanted confectionery to shop customers also annoys him. There is so much food and drink on display wherever we go, it is “bombarding us relentlessly” and he warns we risk “normalising the national weight gain”.

In his campaign to fight the fat, he enlists the help of another famous food campaigner, Jamie Oliver. “It would be ridiculous not to recognise the amazing work Jamie has done, so I go and talk to him about what I have been finding out,” he says. “We have great solidarity on this issue and that’s important for me too, that people see that we really want to work together on this.”

Fearnley-Whittingstall says we must come together to “challenge society and challenge the Government” to turn things around. “I hope we can come up with a really long-term and robust plan to turn things around, but it will involve changing many things.”

He says, among many things, he wants restaurants to start offering healthier choices and for food companies to “have a sense of corporate responsibility for our health”.

He wants them to stop marketing certain foods by “ringing bells and whistles and adding colourful whizz-bangs” to their products, to stop marketing them in a “very aggressive way”.

The presenter concludes: “We just want our kids to be happy, and we just want it to be easier to make healthy, responsible choices.”

Britain’s Fat Fight with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall begins on BBC One, on April 25.