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More on the ‘obesity’ thing

by Henry Scowcroft | Analysis

7 November 2007

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An overweight personAfter all the brouhaha about the Foresight report on obesity the previous week, last week saw another huge media furore about obesity, this time due to the publication of the World Cancer Research Fund report on diet and cancer.

Although it contained no new research in itself, this massive, comprehensive review of all the available evidence (a whopping seven thousand individual bits of research) confirmed what we already knew – that the links between what we eat, our bodyweight, and our risk of cancer are strong, persistent, and clear cut. If you eat unhealthily, you put on weight. And if you’re overweight, you’re more likely to get cancer.

And as soon as it was published, the finger-pointing began again… It’s the Government’s fault, no it’s the advertisers fault, no it’s the individual’s fault, no it’s the food manufacturer’s fault, no it’s the parents’ fault… and so on.

In reality, it’s probably partly everyone’s fault. We’re now living in a society where it’s incredibly easy to consume more calories in a day than you burn. Our sedentary lives mean we have to try very had to get enough exercise. Cycling to work can mean going head to head with juggernauts and bendy buses. Gyms can cost the earth. The UK weather makes outdoor sports less attractive for much of the year. Going running on your own after dark in some of the UK’s cities can be a hairy experience. And so on.

So it was interesting to read an article in the Guardian, looking back to an earlier age. Jonathan Freedland pointed out that, in the days before the NHS, local co-operatives built their own health centres. He visited the (former) Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham:

“The founders, the husband and wife team of George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse, reckoned health was a lot like disease, that it was contagious. The trick was to create an environment in which people would infect each other with well-being.

“The result was a beautiful club, boasting an enormous swimming pool, a gym, boxing rings, a dance hall, a library, a crèche with “room for perambulators” and a cafeteria serving “compost grown” – organic in today’s language – food, produced at the centre’s own farm a few miles away in Bromley. Local families could join for 6d a week, thereby ensuring they felt like members rather than recipients of charity. And they joined in their hundreds”

However, the advent of the NHS, and the centralisation it brought, led to the closure of most of these undertakings. The Pioneer Health Centre closed in 1950, and is now a block of flats.

Obviously, the NHS brought huge, global change to the state of health in the UK – as demonstrated, amongst other things, by the virtual eradication of childhood disease and falling mortality rates from cancer. But, argues Freedland…

“…the post-1945 rush to build a universal welfare state trampled on too many small, creative hives of ingenuity. Before the Fabian infatuation with the central state, Britain had been host to a whole ecology of mutual societies, cooperatives, Sunday schools and workers’ associations. Most went the way of Peckham, crushed under the giant heel of the Whitehall state.”

Health Secretary Alan Johnson was eloquent last week in setting out a list of practical solutions ‘now under consideration’ in the fight against obesity, including a proposal to build new ‘fit towns’, with more green space and cycle lanes. It’s encouraging that this is being discussed, but we need more than talk – its time for action from the Government on all these fronts.