Andrew Vine: Don’t shy away from F-word – for sake of our obese children

Television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's new series, Britain's Fat Fight, is exposing the country's obesity epidemic.
Television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's new series, Britain's Fat Fight, is exposing the country's obesity epidemic.
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THERE’S a familiar scene every morning at the shop near my home where I go to buy the newspapers.

It’s full of children on their way to school, and every single one of them is clutching handfuls of cakes and sweets. Packs of four iced doughnuts seem to be a particular favourite, and somebody invariably has a family-sized bar of chocolate. All ready to be washed down, of course, with a fizzy drink.

This avalanche of calories, fat and sugar isn’t being shared round. I’d bet my last pound that each child with four doughnuts will polish them off single-handedly.

But this morning feast is
only the appetiser. If I happen to call in mid-afternoon when school has finished for the
day, it’s the same again. Long queues of children at the checkouts with yet more cakes and sweets for the walk or bus ride home.

Do their parents know that this is where the money they give them every day is going? If they don’t, they need to wake up pretty sharpish, and if they condone it, they’re guilty of irresponsible parenting.

The amount of junk food
these kids are putting away
every week is frightening. And 
it’s in addition to any sweets 
and cakes that may be on 
offer at home as part of normal family life.

However healthy their diet is at home, this daily ritual is sending their calorie intake through the roof and with all the wrong ingredients.

Some of them are, to put it mildly, already a lot chunkier than they should be and a future as fat adults is approaching as surely as Christmas.

Except that society is increasingly shying away from that particular F-word. It has become socially unacceptable to refer to somebody as fat, because it’s regarded as a term of abuse or derision that is upsetting.

Instead, the clinical word obese is the term of choice, free of any possible offence.

That’s a get-out clause allowing people to think of being overweight as an illness – something caught like the flu – instead of a matter of personal responsibility that can most probably be addressed by a change of diet and more
exercise.

Well, for this growing problem, a bit of straight-talking wouldn’t go amiss. Fat is only a short word, but it’s a potent one. If somebody gets upset at being called it, then it might just spur them to do something, which would be in their own interest.

Just how nervously society tiptoes around the issue has been emphasised by television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new series, Britain’s Fat Fight, which continues tomorrow.

He’s rightly fearless of using this taboo word, but when he suggested it as part of a weight-loss campaign to council officials he is working with, they all flinched and pursed their lips. Can’t have that. Mustn’t call folks fat. Not nice, you know.

It may not be nice, but it is necessary to call a spade a spade. This country’s obesity – or fatness – problem is getting completely out of hand. It’s already costing £6.1bn a year for the NHS to treat people ill as a result, and that’s a figure that is only going to increase.

This makes it time for a culture change in the way we talk about it. Being a whole lot blunter with people can work wonders on health issues. Just look at how rates of smoking have declined as hard-hitting messages about the risks have found their mark.

There is nothing comfortable about putting stomach-churning images of medical problems on cigarette packets, but it’s worked.

And if people are made uncomfortable by the thought that others see them as fat, then there’s every reason to suppose that might work too.

The emphasis on tackling Britain’s expanding waistlines is currently too focussed on food manufacturers and retailers. They certainly bear a large share of responsibility for unhealthy products and tempting marketing, especially when they are aimed at children.

But there is only so much the Government can do by pressurising those who make and sell food. It cannot police
the fridges and cupboards of millions of homes, still less station a commissar in my local shop with powers to prevent a child buying a family pack of doughnuts.

Fighting fatness ultimately has to be a matter for individual adults who don’t feel good because they carry too much weight, dislike what they see in the mirror and decide to do something about it.

And it’s for parents to do something about their children gorging on junk food on their way to and from school.

No responsible parent wants to see their offspring set on the road to possible health problems by bad habits. If the thought
that their child is ultimately going to be labelled fat upsets them to the point of being stricter about what they’re eating, then that’s in everybody’s best interests.