Last month, Royal Holloway University released a new study which received zero media attention.
Looking at trends in Britain in the last 30 years, it found ‘a sharp reduction in the strenuousness of daily life’ while noting that ‘calorie intake has fallen by around 20 per cent.’ This occurred at a time when obesity rates trebled, leading to the conclusion that it is the decline in day-to-day physical activity, rather than a rise in calorie consumption, that has created the obesity ‘epidemic’.
I have not yet found the study online but the same researchers have previously arrived at similar conclusions in a report for the Institute of Fiscal Studies and it tallies with my own study of diet surveys and food sales. The nature of the evidence makes it difficult to make a precise estimate of how much calorie consumption has fallen, but everything points towards a decline of some magnitude and not, as is often assumed, a rise. The same applies to sugar, consumption of which has been falling since the mid-1970s.
These findings should be of great interest to people who want to tackle obesity, but they are routinely ignored or dismissed by campaigners. It is telling that the authors of the new study are economists rather than public health activists. In Jamie Oliver’s hour-long polemic against sugar on Channel 4 recently, there was no mention of the fact that sugar consumption has been in decline ever since he was in short trousers.
It’s not difficult to see why obesity crusaders prefer to focus on calories-in rather than calories-out. The government cannot do much about people’s activity levels but it can interfere in the food supply. This requires a narrative to be constructed in which hapless consumers are being virtually force fed high-calorie food. If people realised that previous generations consumed more calories without becoming obese, the narrative would start to unfold, hence the need to ignore the historical context.
This is not to say that the solution to obesity today is to encourage manual labour and walking to work. Many people will find it easier to cut down on sugary drinks, desserts and alcohol than to do more exercise.
Saying that people are eating too many calories is no different to saying that people are not being sufficiently physically active. It is not an either/or. They are two sides to the same coin. In a society in which sedentary workplaces are the norm, it makes sense to adjust diets accordingly, but we shouldn’t pretend that the food supply has suddenly become flooded with calories in order to make sensible recommendations. Ignoring the cause of a problem is not the best way to find the solution.