Westminister Food and Nutrition Forum – Where’s the blue sky thinking?

I know, I know, if I go to an event about obesity in Whitehall, I’m going to get mad – it’s inevitable. Bu how can it be that we know so much more about how dieting doesn’t work, about how weight-based health paradigms make people feel bad about themselves and don’t help them be healthier and yet still we bang on about labelling, about dieting and the ‘fact’ that we all need to lose weight or we’ll die. Like ANY MINUTE. When are we going to start thinking a bit more HEALTH and a bit less WEIGHT?

Ya, so I couldn't take pics when I was there, in case I was a terrorist...

Ya, so I couldn’t take pics when I was there, in case I was a terrorist… so here’s some sky..

Thanks to the splendid Dr Eliot Marston who bunked off to do something more important (Get his hair done? Lance the cat’s boil?), I managed to get my foot in the door to the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum with his hand me down ticket. Normally, they don’t let unqualified reprobates like me in, but I wore a hat and tried to behave in a stately fashion.

Finally, I would get to see the terrifying Dr Susan Jebb (of MRC, Dispatches programmes and shutting fat people in a room to see how much energy they burn fame) in action, alongside various fun and games from healthcare, government and industry to talk food labelling and what to do about this wretched old obesity crisis. Because, gosh darn it, despite the fact that ‘all obese people will die early’ (thanks David Haslam from the National Obesity Forum for that enlightening direct quote), far too many fat people are not dying early enough and end up being expensive.

Naturally, the event was in Whitehall, which was very exciting for a scabber like me who doesn’t normally get to go into the posh buildings in Whitehall, unless it’s slung between four policemen as I’m carried away kicking and screaming. It looks different when you’re upright, I can tell you. It all began in grand ironic style when I turned up on my bicycle (as ever) and was not able to park anywhere, in case my bicycle was a bomb (note: going to an event in Whitehall about obesity? Better get a taxi). Very sweetly, they let me bring my bicycle in and park it in the cleaners’ cupboard – thank you lovely staff people. Once in, we were all greeted with tea, coffee and mountains of biscuits (note: going to an event in Whitehall about obesity? Have some high sugar/high fat snacks at 8.30am). Talk about setting a good example.

The event itself was mad interesting although, as you might imagine, by about halfway through I was incandescent with rage and also terrified to try to speak in front of all the suits and policy making/industry bigwigs so had to sit with my hands clamped over my mouth, trying to form a coherent yet penetrating question.

The absolute disdain was palpable in the room in the constant othering and describing ‘the fat’ or ‘the poor’ as if they were some strange and incomprehensible life form that needed saving from themselves. Most of the discussion centred around labelling – whose responsibility it was, who was doing what and how, self-satisfaction from some and responsibility shirking from others. There was a great deal of talk about calories, calorie counting, the terrible impacts of obesity and how it makes everyone die horribly, that it’s expensive, that when you diet most people can successfully lose 5% of their body weight after 3-6 months (hallelujah) and blah blah blah. It was all same old same old.

David Haslam was kind of great and kind of awful – he had a great manner and a admirably sensible approach to the NHS box ticking and point scoring but he was being clear that the problems with fat people were that they were mostly unaware or even proud of their bellies (how dare they be proud of their vile and irresponsible paunch?), that they would all develop health problems as a result of their fat and that healthcare professionals weren’t taking the opportunity to hammer home how fat people are. And then he ended with a comical picture of headless fatties and encouraged us to laugh at them. Champion. And he seemed surprised that fat patients weren’t ‘engaging’ with the system, because yes, the best way to get fat people to ‘engage’ is to to tell them they’re going to die young and then laugh at them. Dear Dr Haslam, healthcare professionals have a hard enough time as it is trying to broach this awkward obesity issue, many obese individuals struggle with mustering the self-worth to indulge in self-care – when we said maybe some humour would help, this isn’t what we meant.

I managed to ask him why he was surprised given that he seemed to be mocking and condemning fat people and why didn’t we try separating weight and health but I was so cross and petrified that I was totally incoherent and rambly. Nonetheless, he did say he agreed with me and Mr Professor Someone From Oxford did point out that they’d seen recent research that suggested you didn’t need to lose weight to get the health benefits from making lifestyle changes. So why don’t they separate weight and health I asked? And then they shushed me, said they got what I was trying to say, took the microphone away (really, literally wrested it from my sweaty palm) and moved on.

On the plus side,  I met a reeeeally interesting lady from the MRC who was a little bit radical and a little bit experimental and up for doing things with theatre and obesity…

Shame on you Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum, I laugh in the face of your weight-based health paradigm! *fist shaking* I WILL make change…. *more fist shaking – eats handful of biscuits from plate and puts rest in tupperware box for later* I’ll show you!

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