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16.5: Childhood Obesity and the Bad Mother

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  • Concerns over food safety can also be extended to include foods high in salt, sugar and fat. These do not cause immediate harm in the same way that melamine-tainted milk does, but their cumulative effects can still be dangerous. The World Health Organization has warned that unhealthy diets are a leading global risk to health because of their link to illnesses like heart disease and stroke. In fact, these are the two biggest killers in the world, each causing more deaths every year than HIV/AIDS, lung cancer and road accidents combined. This aspect of food malnutrition – ‘mal’ meaning bad rather than insufficient – should be just as worrying as the existence of food shortages. In the United Kingdom, the public debate about malnutrition has paid particular attention to children’s diets. Some of the debate has focused on problems experienced during childhood itself. For example, in 2014 it was reported that the consumption of sugary foods and drinks had contributed to 25,000 children aged five to nine being admitted to hospital to get rotten teeth pulled out. But mostly it has focused on childhood obesity and the risk this poses for children later in life. Under pressure from campaigners, including doctors and other health professionals, successive British governments have introduced policies to promote dietary change. Restrictions have been placed on junk food adverts, minimum nutritional standards have been applied to school meals, families have been targeted with healthy lifestyle campaigns, and food manufacturers have been asked to lower the salt, sugar and fat content of their products. To cap this off, a ‘sugar tax’ on high-sugar soft drinks was announced in 2016.

    Despite first impressions, these internal debates have actually had an international dimension. In this respect it is important to remember that the United Kingdom is a nation-state made up of four countries (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), with the latter three each having some devolved political powers of their own. As such, policy debates about diet have often become proxy wars over the further devolution of power away from the central state. This happened in 2014 when the first minister of Scotland declared that the Scottish policy to offer more free school meals to pupils showed that Scotland would be better off as an independent country. International data has also been used to defend or discredit domestic policy proposals. The successful campaign to tax sugary drinks, spearheaded by the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, constantly referred to a similar policy introduced in Mexico to show that what worked there could work in the United Kingdom.

    International comparison has also been used in depictions of national identity. British newspapers have run countless stories saying it has become a nation beset by increasing obesity. For some people, especially those with right-wing political views, this has been taken as evidence that the British are becoming lazy and that standards of parenting have worsened. Since childhood obesity is positively correlated with poverty, meaning that children from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be overweight, this interpretation also produced a divisive image of the nation. Put simply, it implied that poor parents were to blame for the country’s moral failings. Moreover, since it is women that tend to be the primary caregivers, the figure of the bad parent inevitably assumed a female face.