Latest figures show that Britain is suffering from an epidemic of obesity, with millions unable to afford nutritious food or access decent fitness facilities. Capitalism is killing us. To protect our health, we need planning, not profit.
Capitalism is literally bad for your health. That is what official statistics show, with levels of obesity in England nearly doubling over the past thirty years, threatening the lives of millions of people. And naturally, the Tories have no solutions to this crisis, other than to blame individuals for their poor diets.
Such is the scale of the problem that 28 percent of adults in England are now ‘obese’, definied as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over 30. And a further 36 percent are ‘overweight but not obese’, defined as having a BMI of over 25.
This means that, in total, nearly 65% of English adults have an unhealthy body weight, including around three-quarters of those aged 45 to 74. Meanwhile, one-in-seven children is obese by the age of five, rising to one-in-four children by the age of 11.
As a result, levels of heart failure, diabetes, osteoarthritis, kidney and liver disease have surged over the past decades. And the UK now has the second highest level of obesity in Europe.
All of this is yet another striking symptom of the long-term decline of British capitalism, which cannot provide decent living standards – including affordable, nutritious diets; accessible exercise facilities; and a healthy work-life balance – for the vast majority of ordinary people.
Whilst obesity affects people from all backgrounds, there is clearly a strong class element to this question. Prevalence of excess weight is on average 13 percentage points higher in the poorest areas of England compared to the richest.
At the extremes, the trend is even more stark. In Halton, Sandwell, and Bolsover, at least 76 percent of the population is overweight or obese. In rich areas such as Hammersmith & Fulham, Westminster, and Kensington & Chelsea, meanwhile, the figure is at most 44 percent. And when it comes to children, rates of obesity in the poorest areas are double those found in the richest.
The reasons for this are clear. Highly processed foods – high in salt, refined carbohydrates, sugar, and fat – are three times cheaper per calorie than healthier foods. With over 7.3 million people in Britain skipping meals or unable to buy food due to the cost-of-living crisis, healthy food has become a luxury for many.
There is also the question of the time required for cooking fresh meals – a fairly time intensive activity. Those with busy or irregular work schedules, and especially those with children, are often forced to rely on unhealthy processed food or takeaways, which require little preparation.
Whilst wealthier folk can afford to eat out at fancy restaurants – with plenty of nutritious, organic options on the menu – those from poorer households have little choice but to rely on unhealthy, calorific fast-food and pub meals, such as those offered by McDonalds and Wetherspoons.
Even in schools, the extreme pressure on budgets due to austerity means that the food served to children – often provided by cost-cutting, profiteering outsourcing firms – leaves much to be desired.
Combined with cuts to school sports programmes and community exercise resources, it is easy to see how the issue of obesity begins at such an early age.
Then there is the way that food is manufactured. Food giant Nestlé admitted last year that over 60 percent of its foods are ‘unhealthy’. This is since it is more profitable for these companies to produce and sell ultra-processed sugary foods than it is to make healthy options.
This is the inevitable product of producing and distributing food as a commodity – that is, for profit. Whilst the rich have no problem in enjoying the most varied and healthy diets, millions of people struggle to put even the most unhealthy meals on their table.
Many other factors also contribute to the gulf in obesity levels between the rich and poor. For example, whilst the rich can easily afford the time and expense of going to the gym – and even employing a personal trainer – such luxuries are out of reach for the poorest.
Many sports and exercise activities in general, meanwhile, involve high up-front costs or facility fees. Expensive hobbies like cycling and climbing, for example, have become more popular amongst better-paid people in recent years. But such activities are either out of reach for people on low-incomes, or are simply unavailable in working-class areas.
It comes as no surprise that the Tories have no solutions to this growing problem. Earlier this year, for example, the Tory government delayed measures to curb the promotion and advertising of junk foods to children. Clearly they are reluctant to do anything that would eat into the profits of the big food companies.
One idea being floated as a fix to the obesity crisis is for the government to impose a high tax on salt and sugar. It is hoped that by doing so, this would encourage food manufacturers to cut down on these ingredients. Indeed, this was one of the main proposals put forward by a government-commissioned review into England’s ‘food strategy’.
Whilst this may result in some recipes being tweaked, however, the overall impact of such a move would be to increase the price of cheap foods, as the manufacturers attempt to pass on their costs.
This is therefore a regressive tax that would simply hammer the already stretched incomes of workers already harder, and as such must be opposed.
In the end, the government rejected this idea of a sugar tax, saying they didn’t want to increase food prices whilst incomes are already squeezed. No doubt they are also reluctant to do anything that interferes with the ability of the big food companies to rake in profits.
Instead, the Tories ‘solution’ to the obesity crisis is simply to blame individuals for their ‘poor’ lifestyle choices. Indeed, former health secretary Savid Javid simply urged people to “take responsibility” for their weight. Former PM Boris Johnson, meanwhile, stated that “the best way to lose weight, believe me, is to eat less”.
But if obesity is simply a question of willpower, how is it that there was virtually no obesity in Britain 50 years ago?
As ever, all that the Tories can offer is to blame individuals for the failings of the capitalist system.
The obesity crisis could be easily solved, however, if only the profit motive were removed from the food and fitness industries.
By taking over the big food producers and distributors, as part of a National Food Service, run under public ownership and democratic workers’ control, we could ensure that supermarket shelves are stocked with affordable, nutritious food for those wishing to cook at home or grab a bite to eat.
At the same time, by nationalising the big restaurant and fast-food chains, public canteens could be set up in workplaces and communities, providing healthy meals that are accessible to all, and thereby freeing people from the burden of domestic labour.
Finally, the big gym chains and leisure centres should be taken into public ownership, giving working-class communities free access to exercise. And there should be mass investment in public spaces and facilities for communal sports and activities – starting in schools, but continuing throughout life.
Combined with a reduction in the working week, with no loss of pay, everyone could enjoy the option and ability to keep fit.
In the final analysis, these measures could only be achieved under a democratically-planned economy – with production based on needs, not profits, and with the working class taking power into its hands – as part of the socialist transformation of society.
Until then, healthy food and exercise will increasingly be a luxury that is out of reach for millions of people.