Jayne Dowle: We should cook our way out of the obesity crisis

Apparently Britain needs to go on a diet. I disagree. What we really need to do is teach people how to cook.

What can be done to tackle Britain's obesity epidemic?
What can be done to tackle Britain's obesity epidemic?

Not cook as in following an intricate recipe promoted by a hectoring television chef which comes with 15 ingredients and a list of instructions that would flummox Heston Blumenthal.

I mean cook as in showing our sons and daughters how to master a rota of easy-to-make meals and snacks which use fresh ingredients and don’t turn the notion of “healthy eating” into trial by cauliflower rice and wheatgrass juice.

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I’m no expert. All I’ve got is an O-level in Home Economics and a tight eye on the household budget. For sedentary me, a partner with a manual job as a bricklayer and two secondary school age children, we work on a daily main meal budget of approximately £10. That’s cheaper than chips, literally.

Our weekly menu usually includes roast dinner on a Sunday, chilli, pasta in all its forms, braised lamb shanks, fish of some kind, “ash” (Barnsley for stew), meat and potato pie, curry and chicken enchiladas. We rarely buy anything ready-made, except pizza. That’s because by trial and error, family advice and my old school recipe book, we’ve all learnt to cook from scratch. It’s what the French do. And how many fat French people do you see?

We’re not saints, or particularly skinny, but we’re all healthy, energetic and rarely trouble the doctor. So when will the experts accept the fact that so many people are seriously overweight or obese in Great Britain is because they simply don’t understand how food works?

If your own parents served up only saturated fat-laden microwave lasagne and chippy teas, you can’t possibly learn. What we have now is a generation of younger parents who only know how to peel a lid off a Pot Noodle or send out for a takeaway. What hope for their children, some of whom turn up at school unable to even use a knife and fork?

But these experts never listen. And now Public Health England has published strict new guidelines advising that we all control our calories to 400 at breakfast and 600 each for lunch and dinner. I’m with the National Obesity Forum on this one who have thrown their hands up in horror.

That’s wartime rations. Too low for growing children. Unsustainable over the long term. And the death knell for our national favourites such as roast dinner and curry. Where does it leave the new celebration of British food we hear so much about, not to mention the farmers, cheese-makers and bakers who spearhead the movement?

I wonder if Public Health England has actually ever been on a diet. If I put my partner and two growing children on a strict 600 calories-each limit for their main meal (we call it tea in our house) they would be raiding the cupboard for bowls of cereal by bedtime. I think that’s what you call counter-productive.

And don’t the people at PHE realise that “400-600-600” means little to families who don’t even eat breakfast? I can’t take any moral high ground here. I have to force food on my two children before they leave for school. The thought of weighing and measuring careful calories of berries, yoghurt and wholemeal toast before they rush out the door sounds ghastly.

It’s a class thing of course, although not exclusively so. It used to be that the poor were thin and the rich were plump, literally well-fed off the fat of the land. In general, in recent years the opposite has become true.

Obesity, which leads to serious health problems and costs the NHS billions, tends to be more prevalent in people who have less money to spend on food. In general, these tend to live in areas of high unemployment, low aspiration and social deprivation.

Public Health England has produced a map which shows that central London is the “least fat” location in the country. For example, only 46.5 per cent of the population of fashionable Camden in North London are carrying excess weight. I’m afraid to say that this compares unfavourably to our own region; Rotherham in South Yorkshire has the highest proportion of overweight individuals in the country, a staggering 76.2 per cent of the population.

Now, we could spend all day debating the socio-economic reasons for this but I think that most of us could guess them anyway. I’m familiar with both locations and if you want a gross generalisation, I’d say that people who live in Camden are more likely to be fastidious about what they eat. This will of course present itself in irritating behaviour such as insisting on organic and drinking only purified water. That’s why there has to be a middle way.

And this middle way must begin in the kitchen. The researchers and nutritionists should tear up this 400-600-600 nonsense and publish a national recipe book of plain, wholesome, affordable meals. I’ll offer up my slow-cooker chilli for starters.