Obesity crisis? It’s down to the lost art of eating together
Telegraph columnist Celia Walden takes aim at Britons’ bad eating habits
Every January, we get a slew of information and misinformation about food. Heart-stopping obesity statistics (pun intended) curdle with faddy advice from diet gurus and celebrity thinifers urging us to ditch “sugary” carrots, drink liquefied meals like toothless infants and cut out whole food groups.
Then there’s the well-meaning brigade: the politicians and doctors assuring us that if only there were calorie caps in restaurants and supermarkets, if only the cynical food manufacturers who ladle sugar into our children’s yogurts and fruit juices could be made to feel more responsible – then we, conversely, could be allowed to feel less responsible by labelling gluttony a disease.
Britain, for example, has the sixth highest obesity rate in the Western world, with two thirds of its adults overweight and nearly a third of children overweight or obese. The projected cost of all this to the NHS? An estimated £9.7bn (R173-billion) by 2050.
You can only imagine what the statistics are like in South Africa.
None of these valiant crusades will succeed in making a difference. Because it’s not the overweight and the obese that are diseased but our society as a whole: a society now so careless towards both nutrition and family that Britain has become a nation of food zombies, too busy blindly guzzling before our separate devices to see that one simple lifestyle change could reverse these statistics – sitting down to eat together as a family.
Family. It’s almost as quaint and archaic a notion as breaking bread together, communing, believing in anything loftier than getting through the day.
Obviously the ritual and ceremony of sitting down together to eat strengthens relationships, and clearly you have to put your fork down and stop shovelling long enough to speak, laugh and argue when you share a meal.
But there’s a proven health value too: thin people sit at the table to eat; while fat people gobble mindlessly in front of screens.
And not only do they eat up to 69% per cent more than “non-distracted” people, according to one study published by Appetite journal, but they veer towards sugar, fat and mind-numbing chemicals. Oh and they’re 25% more likely to eat more during the day.
Maybe Britons never really held communal eating sacred in the way the French, Italians and Spanish always have. Maybe we were too busy industrialising and de-industrialising to prioritise food over work.
Certainly we still have an uncomfortable relationship with pleasure – much as we like to pretend otherwise with our concerted boozing, co-opting of European cuisine and embracing of Nigella-esque cookery shows. But all that’s hollow if the essence of family life has been corrupted – if the whole thing’s a mirage.
Now I’m sounding priggish, and I don’t mean to. As a mum I know how challenging choreographing meals can be. One of you will be late and if it’s me, both the husband and child will be in states of extreme hanger (when hunger meets anger) by the time I get home.
The little one can’t eat the peppers in that stir-fry but your husband likes it jalapeño-tastic and suddenly you’re making two separate dinners and not enjoying either one of them yourself.
But I remember, too, the first three years of my daughter’s life, when my husband was working evenings and after feeding her and putting her to bed I’d eat alone in front of the telly – because it was easier. And the telly doesn’t throw mashed swede back in your face.
I remember that after the first few bites I stopped tasting and enjoying what I ate.
I made what nutritionists hilariously call “poor food decisions”. And somehow the bleakness of those evenings – losing the linchpin of that one shared moment of the day – felt detrimental to every aspect of our lives, waistlines included.
And so I resolved to make eating together a priority.
Reacting to revelations on Sunday that because of the obesity epidemic a whopping 41,000 Brits needed hip and knee replacements last year, Prof Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, declared that “by reclassifying obesity as a disease we can hope to reduce its prevalence”.
Prof Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, called for “access to weight management services” for children, and Public Health England, the government’s agency, assured us it was “working with the food industry to make food healthier and through our campaigns to offer families healthier options”.
Here’s a campaign idea: bring back family dinners. It won’t cost the government a penny, and it might just save thousands of lives. – © Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019..