Obesity – When Will The UK Wake Up From Its Food Induced Coma??

Hitting the news this week was a story about 30% of all two-to-15-years-olds being overweight, while 14-20% are obese. The news item was accompanied by a photo of a glazed Krispy Kreme doughnut and had a tone of resignation, rather than outright alarm!

Are we in the eye of a perfect storm that has been 20 years in the making? Why are TV cooking programs full of Chefs making over-fussy food instead of programs that actually show people how to make day-to-day basics that are healthy, nutritious and straight-forward? Why do we have people in their mid-thirties uncomfortable with making the food they eat from scratch?

Casting my memory back to when I was in year 9 of high school and I was deciding which options to take. I was particularly interested in cooking, or food tech as it was called so I went to discuss it with the teacher. I clearly had a romanticized notion that the 2 years would be filled with culinary skills and techniques; say starting with knife skills, working through stocks, soups and sauces, moving onto meats, poultry and fish, and wrapping up with pastries, souffles and desserts; how wrong I was!

During the 2 year course the curriculum required you to create a 3 course menu that could be cooked, held, packaged, frozen, stocked on a supermarket shelf for a required amount of time, before being reheated by the consumer. Needless to say I did not take this course! Now in my early 30’s and a good 15 years on from that experience I can only imagine the hundreds of thousands who have been failed and let down by the education system with regards to food, how to balance their diet, how to buy and prep food, and how to fit it into your healthy life.

While I understand the different political parties have differing views on how much government should interfere with the day-to-day meal plans of the nation, I do wonder just how much of policy is driven by the lobbyists for big corporations. Surely their interest in churning out prepackaged food, laced with artificial ingredients and preservatives in order to provide their shareholders with fat dividends far outweigh any notion to provide food that the human body needs for life.


In a 2011 report by the Department of Health ‘Healthy Lives, Healthy People: A call to action on obesity in England‘ has a goal to reduce the number of calories the nation eats every day by 5 billion, and says that business has a big part to play in achieving this. Where is their incentive? If the government isn’t going to take responsibility and get involved in the day-to-day food consumption of a population, why should boards of directors in a particular industry take up the reins? I’m not arguing for more regulation because that doesn’t produce results. What would make a shift I believe is giving people the information they need from a young age to make the right decisions about food. Such information would allow the consumer to vote with their shopping baskets and business would have to respond based on market forces.

An example of how business has contributed to this bloated issue has to be the 80’s advertising campaign by the frozen foods company, Iceland. Their slogan of, “Mum’s gone to Iceland” somehow altered social consciousness and made it publicly acceptable for the home cook to abdicate his or her responsibility for sourcing and preparing their own food as generations have done so before them. This combined with the rise of the supermarket as a one-stop shop where ready-meals are in constant supply, and a dwindling of resources to teach our children about how to prepare their own food has surely landed us in the eye of a perfect storm for an unhealthy population that is scared of fresh produce.

Even the self checkout at my local supermarket seemed against the idea of filling my basket with fresh fruits and vegetables on a recent visit. Rather than cramming my basket with big and bulky boxed ready meals I had instead a basket filled with fresh produce that was packaged just how Mother Nature intended. After about the 20th item the machine said I needed “assistance.”This was when I discovered I had reached the somehow predetermined limit for what I should be able to put in my basket, and can only imagine it was based on big and bulky prepackaged foods.

Chefs on TV. Don’t get me wrong I like to watch these programs but even as a trained Chef myself I sometimes watch how they construct a dish and often dismiss it because of the complexity or the equipment needed. If this is where your average home cook tries to get hints, tips and techniques from then it’s no wonder there are low rates of conversion from watching how it’s made, to actually getting in the kitchen and making it for yourself. It doesn’t have to be cooking by numbers for it to be useful but the techniques and dishes shown should be relevant for daily life, the ability of a large percentage of the population, and also their expectations for what they would like to cook.

I have toured the UK and ROI this year and as part of each demonstration I have roasted a chicken, a humble chicken. Seasoning it with salt and pepper, discussing the reasons to bring meat up to room temperature before starting to cook, and roasting it for 20 minutes a pound, plus 20 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 82c is all I do. I am always astounded by the number of people who say they have never tasted roast chicken as good, and we’re not even talking the fancy free-range, organic, corn-fed types of birds here. This is real basic stuff but the sad fact is, most people don’t know how to do it or are scared by it, and settle for mediocrity. They have little option but to allow someone else to do it for them. Does this company really care if they have a good experience or not?

People wonder why families aren’t sitting down for a Sunday roast. I think it’s simple – there isn’t a hook for them to make it a priority because there’s no incentive to have bland, pre packaged crap. People ask me what my favorite meal is and I always give the same answer, Mum’s Christmas Turkey with all the trimmings! It’s simple. Why? Because I was fortunate to have a Mum who could cook, who made everything from scratch, while still holding down a job 3 days a week and looking after the admin side of my Dad’s business. The food she made was something I looked forward to and without sounding corny it had the secret ingredient of love that mass-produced meals will never have! People eat for emotions, and unfortunately there is no emotion in food that is bought just to be heated through.

One of the few TV cooking programs that I believe does a good service is The Great British Bake-Off. Each week Paul and Mary are there to help the contestants with different types of food that someone may aspire to make at home. In-fact they are inspired because the sale of home baking equipment soars whenever the show is on the air. Can the same be said for one of Gordon’s, Heston’s or Raymond’s shows? I know people who have taken New Year resolutions to bake a different item a week for 52 weeks, and they are sharing their adventure (and treats!) with family and friends. How cool is that?! This is part of what we need to get people back in their kitchens and feeling confident to give something a go. We also need recipe books that have complete methods, rather than missing tidbits here and there and catching out the unknowing cook.

Nowhere in this weeks news did I see reference to the Department of Education. If we are to move from being Unconsciously Incompetent to Unconsciously Competent there has to be some information added to the mix. This should be coming through the education system because we are in a sorry situation of having some parents who don’t know how to cook, so where does that leave their children? Twenty years ago nobody was recycling, and it was school children who were targeted through TV programs like Blue Peter to recycle any plastics, tin cans, cardboard, etc. We now have a generation of 20-30 somethings who think nothing of having 3 or 4 different waste bins outside their home, and it’s fantastic for the environment! This approach needs to be taken in schools and youth groups today.

I’m not saying children should only be eating vibrant salads, oily fish and cous cous, although would it hurt if they ate it now and then? Children should be eating food that will provide their bodies with the nutrients they need and in the right quantities; this has to come from fresh foods. They can still eat pizzas, burgers and mac ‘n’ cheese if they want to, but they should know how to make these foods from scratch, show self-restraint with portion sizes and have a vibrant salad with them that is packed with essential vitamins and minerals.

The health service says it’s in crisis because of cut-backs. Health problems associated with being overweight or obese actually cost the NHS more than £5 billion every year. Here’s the wishy-washy part though, The Department of Health has targets that by 2020 they want to see:

  • a downward trend in the level of excess weight in adults
  • a sustained downward trend in the level of excess weight in children

Department of Health targets for reducing this, or seeing a downward trend in that is only trying to solve the symptoms. Depression is not a Prozac deficiency! The problem is a lack of knowledge and comprehension, and this is where efforts should be focused.

2020 is after the life of the current government and what do the terms “downward trend” and “sustained downward trend in the level of excess weight in children” mean anyway? Will the added health bill be a mere £4.5 billion instead, and are that many cases of obesity OK? If I want to lose weight does it take me 7 years or can I do something about it in 7 weeks? Let’s take some concrete action in 2013 and sound like we are taking this serious problem seriously!

Here’s a radical idea…have the people at the Department of Health combine forces with the people over at the Department of Education to put together a realistic and relevant program of strategies to tackle the causes instead of apparently working in silo’s and focusing on symptoms? Maybe even get the Department for Business, Innovation & Trade and Defra involved in the framework and establish how business and the farming community can help supply the produce that will be needed. Consult organisations such as the Scouts, Guides Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, etc, to ensure all groups who have  influence over the teaching of young people are all giving one coherent message. The government and teachers can’t do it all, but there are a lot of people and organisations who would love to help I’m sure.

This week saw the first stem cell burger consumed because ‘experts say’ the demand for meat is going to outstrip the ability of farmers to produce it. Why don’t these same experts think about the possibility that eating too much meat isn’t part of a healthy diet in the first place and use the financial resources to educate people on what a well-balanced plate of food looks like?

Finally I think a population that has better habits for fueling their bodies, and that is healthier as a result will surely be a happier one.

Comments please. Is it just me who has got stirred up by this weeks news?


About richardpholden

Chef living in Henley-on-Thames working for Weber BBQ's UK. Passionate about food and championing local/niche suppliers. Available for private catering, in-home cooking lessons and menu consultation. In this blog I hope to honestly share some of my journey with you, the highs and the lows, as well as post thoughts that have provoked me and made me think about something in my life, or in the larger world, in a slightly different way. These are my thoughts and my interpretations and questions on any given topic. I love the kinds of questions that make us look at an aspect of our life and delve into it more than usual. I hope you enjoy!

Posted on August 13, 2013, in Thoughts & Questions and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Completely agree. I’m a freelance cookery leader and teach children cooking at a number of schools, youth clubs and privately. Children love to cook and handle food. By getting them more involved in a hands on way promotes confidence and increases the likelihood of them trying new foods – especially when they see their friends eating different foods. We need to teach children to re-educate their own parents and also so that they can pass down these skills to the next generation – as cooking homemade fresh food is a dying trend. Parents need to substitute a little mess in the children for the healthy and happy children!
    my blog http://www.kinderkitchenrecipes.blogspot.com

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