Jayne Dowle: There’s no answer on a plate to tackling Britain’s bad diet

I WONDER what kind of supermarkets Public Health Minister Anne Milton shops in, because she has obviously never been to the ones I frequent. Not that my own trolley would stand close scrutiny from the healthy eating brigade, but I can safely say that it isn’t packed to the gunnels with chicken nuggets.

A few weeks ago, I followed a father loading his trolley. He was accompanied by a chubby toddler who alternatively stuffed her face with a crisp, and then threw a crisp as far as she could into the depths of the freezer cabinets.

He did nothing to stop her, and indeed, looked fondly on. For once, I kept my mouth shut. I was actually speechless with astonishment. By the time they got to the till, she had demolished the entire bag. By the looks of her father, whose tracksuit bottoms clung beneath his belly, obesity is definitely a taught habit.

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So that’s why I’m wondering. Because however many “Supermeal” healthy-eating-for-less-than-a-fiver recipe cards Ms Milton and her pet celebrity chef Ainsley Harriott come up with for their new campaign, people like that father just won’t take any notice. Especially when, according to a new survey, most obese people are in denial about the fact that they are obese.

You don’t have to put the words “obese” and “denial” into the same sentence for me.

Four years ago, after two pregnancies in three years and the acquisition of some very bad eating habits, I weighed four stones more than I do now. And for months, I refused to accept that I was truly obese.

There are all sorts of calculations you can do in your head to justify your size but sometimes you just have to face facts: you’re fat, and if you value your health and your ability to buy normal clothes in normal shops, you have to do something about it.

The only advice I can give to those embarking on a New Year resolution to lose weight is to summon up every scrap of sheer bloody-mindedness and force yourself to eat less and move more. But I realise that you can’t bottle that, and this is why the Government has to be seen to be doing something to persuade the unpersuadable.

That something is the Department of Health’s Change 4 Life programme. Its aims are laudable, but with a population of our size – literally – its outcomes are surely un-measurable, so you have to question just how justifiable it is in a time when austerity is biting hard.

I don’t know how much it costs to print four million recipe cards, create a load of stuff for a website and publish a cookbook, but it’s not going to be cheap. And, it must be said, we have been here before, and what happened? Last summer Jamie Oliver’s long-running campaign to persuade children to opt for healthy school meals lost its government backing.

I seem to recall the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, pointing out that individuals don’t like to be lectured at about their eating habits. If that’s what he thought then, and he’s in charge, what has happened to change his mind in a few short months? And, it could be argued, if there is one sensible way to tackle the seemingly unsurmountable problem of obesity, it is to get to the kids and harness pester power so they go home and persuade their parents to put down the pasties in favour of the pitta bread and hummus.

So was it the official survey which revealed that the second most popular evening meal in Great Britain is now a sandwich? Well, if so, it proves my point. What we have created in this country are several generations who simply can’t cook, and won’t cook.

Education policy has to take some of the rap, because basic home economics as we knew it has been shoved off the timetable. But what makes me really cross is that these celebrity chefs who happily join government bandwagons are as much to blame as anyone else.

Whatever advice they dish out about making “quick and easy meals”, they have been complicit in turning the basic activity of cooking a square meal into an art and a science beyond the comprehension of many ordinary people.

They make me feel inadequate, so I can’t imagine what they do to some young woman who never even helped her mother make Sunday dinner.

I’ve nothing against him personally, but when Ainsley Harriott stands there and says this “simple pasta dish” has only got “four ingredients” as he did at the launch of this new campaign, does he not realise that millions of people, weaned on junk food, and terrified out of their wits at the prospect of peeling a potato, just wouldn’t know where to start with only two? Can’t cook? Won’t cook? Is it any wonder?