Boris Johnson has declared the government’s latest war on obesity. It’s a continuation of the war on ‘junk food’. It’s a timely move, as in lockdown we’ve all been snacking and munching straight from the fridge, during the most ghastly yet boring year in known living memory.
Most of us have got fatter as a consequence. Predictably, we are once more now reprimanded for eating ‘junk food’. Yet it’s also an occasion to remind ourselves that there is no such thing as ‘junk food’. There’s only ‘junk diet’.
The idea of ‘junk food’ has been around for a couple of decades now as the proliferation of fast food outlets has expanded exponentially, with those ghastly names such as ‘McDonald’s’ and ‘Burger King’, offering cheap food for the terrible proletariat.
The waistlines of Europeans and Americans have expanded at an alarming rate as a consequence, so goes the narrative. During lockdown, matters have got even worse. Opening the fridge to see what snack is available has become the most domestically interesting pursuit of the day. Ordering takeaway food has been the norm.
Yet lockdown has made us a nation of new joggers aware of what we eat. We’ve been eating burgers and pizzas, that is true, but most of us – out of curiosity and sheer boredom – have also been eating lettuce, spring onions, pickled beetroot, and a whole array of unusual vegetables, just because going to the supermarket has become the sole source of recreation this summer.
A common complaint is that we have put on weight. At the same time, we have become more indulgent. And still, we are reprimanded that fast food is bad for us and makes us fat. To which the reply must be: only in lockdown, when for weeks we have been prisoners in our homes, gorging ourselves with pizzas, watching television and drinking ourselves into oblivion, as the only form of escape.
Sure, obesity is a problem for many people, and type 2 diabetes, which results from being overweight, can cause health problems. People with type 2 diabetes, like some in my family, are particularly vulnerable to Corvid-19 and I am especially keen not to develop it.
But the war on ‘junk food’ is profoundly misguided. It displays wrong, literal-mindedness thinking. Saturday night’s burger or kebab after a few pints of lager isn’t going to make you fat. Nor will a McDonald’s or Burger King meal kill you.
What will kill you prematurely is having fried burgers and copious amounts of alcohol every day. Fast food and beer are not the bad boys here. A post-pub takeaway once a week is harmless and won’t make you obese, just as one pint of beer at the end of the day doesn’t make you an alcoholic. Concentrating on your diet on a weekly or monthly basis is more important than what you actually eat today or tomorrow. Moderation is the key word here. Eat meat in moderation. Consume alcohol in moderation. Have a moderate amount of vegetables every day.
Alas, we don’t live in moderate times. Every fashionable diet has to be deemed to be some kind hardcore regime – hence the rise of puritan veganism, adherents of which look down with pure, self-righteous contempt at mere vegetarians who haven’t, like me, eaten animals for a quarter of a century. I’m damned by vegans for eating anything that emanates from animals.
Obesity has been a problem in Britain for years. It’s right that Boris Johnson should draw attention to it. But it’s also important that a government that has made such a confusion in its response to the epidemic in Leicester also shouldn’t send out ambiguous messages when it comes to obesity.
We need to get out of the everyday laziness that some have suffered since March. We need to walk every day. Staying at home watching television is bad for us, physically and mentally. These rules apply every day, all day, irrespective of any viral infection.
There has been much talk in the newspapers about how many of us have vowed to change our ways when this virus has passed. Personally, I don’t believe it. As a native Londoner who grew up with IRA and then Islamist terror attacks, I’ve heard it all before: that terrible experiences change people’s thinking about their lives. We’ll all go back to as we were – mostly.
Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)