I was at a ‘wellness’ presentation the other day. It was a very well put together evening that looked at the sustainability of the NHS on the Isle of Man, given the rise in obesity and the associated health complications. At the end of the presentation members of the audience were allowed to ask the panel questions, or to put across points or opinions that the preceding presentations had stimulated. Right at the very end of the questions, a lady, who was an ex-nurse, gave an impassioned plea about how we need to be educating primary school children so that they can make healthy choices and they can grow up, not only knowing what to eat, but also to help their parents’ to make more informed food choices. She argued that we need to stop pointing the finger at institutions and start accepting more personal responsibility for our health.
When the applause had died down the meeting was over and people started to head for the door. Which was a shame. Because I wanted to ask the audience, of around 120 people, the following questions:
- Who in this audience would like to lose a bit of weight? A brief look around confirmed that the audience were a very typical cross-section of society and the normal two thirds being overweight or obese seemed to apply.
- Of those who answered yes, who thinks eating spinach and/or kale is healthy? I am making an assumption here, but I would like to think that the vast majority, if not all, of those answering would say yes to this question.
- To the same group, who thinks eating biscuits and/or cake is unhealthy? Once more, I’m making assumptions but I’d like to think that this question would provoke a pretty unanimous answer.
- And again, to those who would like to lose a pound or two, how many of you have eaten spinach and/or kale in the last 7 days? I genuinely have no idea how many of those surveyed would say yes to this. Probably not many but, frame it alongside the next question…
- Lastly, how many of you have eaten biscuits and/or cake in the last seven days? The point here is, as I’m sure you’ve worked out by now, I don’t know the numbers but I’m happy to bet my mortgage on the fact there would be more hands going up for this question than for number 4.
So what does this theoretical question time prove? The fact that a lack of nutrition education is not the problem. The vast majority of people have the intellectual capacity to work out what is likely to be healthy to eat and what is unhealthy to eat. Yes, there are grey areas and the dietary guidelines have gone a long way to confuse just about everyone – including those with extensive knowledge in nutrition – but it is basic common sense to work out that vegetables are likely to be better for your health than a chocolate bar. And yet chocolate bars out sell vegetables my some margin.
The day after the wellness presentation I had to attend fracture clinic with my son, who had damaged his thumb the previous week (fortunately it was only a sprain, but thanks for asking). I looked across the waiting room and I saw an image that summed the situation up perfectly. There was a very informative poster on the wall, giving some wonderful dietary information, advocating eating plenty of healthy vegetables and fresh food. It was very good. However, sat underneath the poster was a child, in his early teens, who was obese and drinking a can of fizzy drink.
I’m going to be controversial here as I believe that educating people as to what is a healthy diet is part of the problem.
Firstly, although I believe this to be a minor point, trying to ascertain what is a “healthy diet” causes all sorts of friction between those with an interest in nutrition. So much time is spent arguing between low fat, high fat, low carb, high carb, plant-based, animal-based, organic, vested interests, hidden agendas, etc., etc. We’ve all seen the exchanges on social media that polarise views and get people all hot under the collar. It’s all interesting stuff and nutrition should be researched, but is it helping to educate or adding to confusion? That’s a discussion for another day.
The main reason I think educating people can add to the problem is simple, supply and demand economics. Let me give you an example:
I bought a plastic pot of 2 hard boiled eggs, with a few leaves of spinach in it, from a motorway service station. It cost £1.80. In a neighbouring fridge, there were 2 scotch eggs in a plastic pot. Just to explain to anyone who is unfamiliar with a scotch egg; this was 2 hard boiled eggs wrapped in a pork sausage-meat layer and smothered in a bread crumb-like coating. These 2 scotch eggs were £1.30. This means that the extra processing, extra ingredients and larger packaging makes these scotch eggs 50p cheaper than plain old hard boiled eggs.
I suppose there could be a number of manufacturing or bulk haulage reasons but I think that would be to over complicate the matter. As I said, let’s stick with basic economic principles: If demand for a product goes up, price goes up. That’s not rocket science and even scientists with next to no business acumen can grasp the concept.
It therefore follows that if money is spent to educate the masses that vegetables and fresh food are keys to a healthy life, demand for vegetables and fresh food will go up. In response, the price of vegetables and fresh food go up – we live in a free market economy so it is inevitable. Instead of “education”, read “marketing” and you get the idea. This explains why there is a correlation between obesity and poverty, with those from a poorer background being far more likely to be overweight or obese. They have been priced out of the game by supermarkets charging ridiculous prices for real food and next to nothing for ultra-processed junk. Time for another, real-life example:
For one cauliflower my local supermarket was charging £2.25 (yes, you did just read that correctly!). In the next aisle a bag of 8 packs of branded crisps was being sold for £1.00.
What sort of ‘education’ would get someone, who is struggling financially, with kids to feed, to shell out £2.25 on a cauliflower when that person could buy 18 packets of crisps for the same price? It’s got me stumped.
So what can be done?
Clearly, we can’t go around telling everyone to eat junk food, in the vain hope that it forces the price up and vegetables become miraculously affordable. In all honesty, I have no idea how to overcome this Catch 22, but I think that it is something that we should all be aware of and a discussion that should be started.
In my nutritional utopia I’d like to see multi-ingredient foods (say 5 or more listed ingredients) taxed, with the proceeds used to subsidise single-ingredient food. It’s a nice idea but I wish whichever MP wants to get that one through parliament the very best of luck!
The point is, as the title states: education without regulation is not the answer. As with tobacco, education is vital. So is regulation, to change the business landscape, and radical changes of law, to alter social attitudes towards food.
Having dropped that bombshell, I’m going to go and have some hard boiled eggs with cauliflower……..if someone could lend me a fiver.